How can the government reduce alcohol harm in the UK?

A person suffering from the affects of alcohol harm

Alcohol causes cancer – but there are 3 clear ways to reduce the harm done by alcohol in the UK.

Almost 17,000 new cancer cases in the UK were linked to alcohol in 2020 – that’s around 46 new diagnoses every day.

Despite this, little is being done to reduce the health harms of alcohol.

Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, explores what steps the government must take to improve our nation’s health.

1) Increase the price of alcohol

An all-day happy hour promotionIn England, it is possible to drink the low-risk weekly guideline of 14 units for just £2.68 (pdf) – about the price of a cup of coffee from many high street coffee chains.

Evidence shows that as alcohol becomes more affordable, drinking and alcohol-related harm increase.

The simplest way to reduce the amount of cheap alcohol drunk is by increasing the price. A 50p minimum unit price (MUP) in England is estimated to save 525 lives and cut healthcare costs by £326m every year.

MUP was introduced in Scotland in 2018 and in Wales in 2020. Since its introduction in Scotland, alcohol sales have fallen to their lowest level since 1994.

If we are to tackle alcohol harm and improve our nation’s health, England cannot afford to be left behind the rest of the country.

2) Provide information

Alcohol is linked to at least 7 types of cancer, as well as more than 200 other diseases and injury conditions. Yet only 30% of people in the UK spontaneously link alcohol with cancer.

More needs to be done to increase people’s awareness of the health harms associated with alcohol so they can make informed choices about what and how much they drink.

We need nutritional information and prominent health warnings on alcohol labels. Studies suggest that this could help reduce alcohol harm by increasing knowledge of the health risks and prompting behaviour change.

3) Restrict alcohol advertising, promotion and availability

Men clink beer bottles while watching sport

Alcohol advertising is everywhere in the UK today.

A recent study (pdf) found that alcohol appeared every 12 seconds at a 2020 Six Nations rugby match. This tournament is watched by around 30 million children every year.

Marketing like this serves to normalise alcohol consumption and make it seem part of everyday life from a young age.

We need the government to introduce comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising across multiple media, including restrictions on sponsorships and activities targeting young people, and to end the 24-hour unrestricted availability of alcohol in shops.

Take action

Want to take action on alcohol harm? Become a campaigner with the Alcohol Health Alliance.

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About the author

Prof Sir Ian Gilmore is chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK – a coalition of more than 60 organisations working together to end alcohol harm. He is a former president of the Royal College of Physicians (2006–10) and is director of the Liverpool Centre for Alcohol Research.