A weak brew indeed

Despite much anticipation, an extended gestation period, and plenty
of good advice, the government’s Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy
has been still-born. More than six years late, the prime minister’s
strategy unit has produced a lopsided and feeble set of policies
which look set to exacerbate rather than improve the nation’s
alcohol problem.

Medical professionals and addiction workers alike have been quick
to voice their profound disillusionment. They argue the government
is doggedly pursuing its antisocial behaviour agenda by cracking
down on alcohol-related law and order issues, while wilfully
ignoring the human misery and massive health costs associated with
alcohol misuse.

And it’s not hard to see where they are coming from. High-profile
measures in the strategy include “voluntary” codes of practice for
manufacturers and retailers, and more police powers to combat
antisocial behaviour and “drink-fuelled violence”. Other measures
include a suggested ban on glass drink containers, and wardens to
keep the peace at taxi ranks.

These policies would only have made sense as part of a balanced
overall strategy which dealt equally with crime prevention, harm
reduction and treatment services. But what has really grated with
experts is that, rather than acting on six years of advice from
alcohol organisations and the medical profession, the government
proposes yet another round of lengthy pilot schemes and a national
audit of “gaps in provision”. Nobody wants or needs more surveys,
audits and pilots. We already have evidence of what works. Services
just want the support and funding to get on and do it.

Treatment services are the crux of the issue. Six times as many
people are dependent on drink as are on class A drugs, yet alcohol
treatment receives only 20 per cent of the funding. As a result,
these are often under-resourced and don’t have the capacity to meet
demand, and problem drinkers can wait up to 18 months before
receiving treatment. Now, to make matters worse, one in five GPs
are planning to use the freedoms within the new GP contract to
withdraw services for people abusing alcohol from 1 April. The
Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy is a classic missed opportunity,
and the government ignores the sharp end at its peril.

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