210,000 people face alcohol death risk, warn doctors

Woman drinking wine

Failure to reform alcohol laws could lead to 210,000 preventable deaths in England and Wales in the next 20 years, doctors have warned.

They are putting pressure on the government ahead of its "alcohol strategy" for both countries, expected in the coming months.

Writing in The Lancet, doctors said the UK was at a "potential tipping point".

Prime Minister David Cameron has already vowed to tackle the "scandal" of drunkenness and alcohol abuse.

The projected mortality figures come from Prof Ian Gilmore, a former president of the Royal College of Physicians, Dr Nick Sheron, from the National Institute for Health Research and members of the British Society of Gastroenterology.

Their figure of 210,000 is a reduction from their previous estimate of 250,000 and represents their "worst-case scenario" of no change to alcohol policy.

"It remains entirely within the power of the UK government to prevent the worst-case scenario of preventable deaths," they wrote.

The figures for England and Wales suggest 70,000 of the deaths could be from liver disease and the rest from accidents, violence and chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, breast cancer and cancer of the gastrointestinal tract.

'Tipping point'

They were critical of the "responsibility deal" in England, which are voluntary agreements with the drinks industry on issues such as promotions and labelling.

This was compared to the Scottish government's approach such as a minimum price per unit of alcohol.

The group said: "We are at a potential tipping point in the UK in taking on the shameful, preventable loss of life caused by alcohol.

"The potential prize of reversing this tragic toll of alcohol-related deaths is there for the taking."

The Department of Health will publish its alcohol strategy for England later this year.

Selling alcohol below cost price is to be banned in England and Wales from 6 April. However, ministers are expected to go further in the forthcoming strategy, recommending a higher minimum price for drink.

The chief executive of Alcohol Concern, Eric Appleby, said: "What we have to accept is that doing nothing is no longer a responsible option for alcohol policy, and that trying to 'nudge' drinking culture through information and persuasion has proved to be little better than doing nothing.

"We can see from the example of other countries that drinking patterns really can change, the challenge is there for the government to start the process now through the alcohol strategy."

Henry Ashworth, chief executive of the Portman Group, which also represents UK drinks producers, said: "It is really important that we put this report in context.

"The vast majority of people drink responsibly. Painting doomsday scenarios won't help reduce alcohol misuse and calling for Soviet Union-style population controls cannot do anything but alienate the vast majority of people who already drink within government guidelines.

"We agree with the prime minister that strong partnerships are essential to tackle the minority who use alcohol recklessly and drinks producers are committed to supporting this approach."

The Public Health Minister, Anne Milton, said: "As the prime minister said earlier this week, we are determined to tackle the scandal of alcohol abuse. People that misuse alcohol endanger their own lives and those of others.

"It costs the NHS £2.7bn per year and in our forthcoming alcohol strategy we will set out our plans on how to deal with the wide range of problems and harms it causes."

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