Panorama response: Alcohol does kill - so why not say it

By Peter Mitchell, Chair

Scottish alcoholics are being blatantly ripped off. That was the message from Adrian Chiles in the Panorama, Britain’s Drink Problem (BBC1, 10th June, 20.30).

While England’s drunks can swig 3 litres of super strength cider for the bargain price of £3.90, the same bottle in Scotland costs a staggering £11 (you can buy two bottles of Tesco claret for that!)

In a follow up to Chiles’ not-so staggering revelation that he drank too much, the affable presenter decided to find out how much the British drinking public knew about the health risks associated with their favourite tipples. Fittingly, he hosted a pub quiz based around knowledge of alcohol units and left most of the contestants crying in their beer as they consistently underestimated the potential harm of their favourite tipple.

He blamed the booze industry for shoddy labelling (most of it was out of date and much of it illegible). Their spokesman – a sober individual with a crisp shirt and a smooth head – blamed the Government and Public Health.

I’m just asking you to label things more clearly, wailed Chiles. ‘It’s not as if I’m asking you to print Alcohol Kills on every bottle.’

Why not, I thought. Why isn’t he asking them to write Alcohol Kills on every bottle? After all it does just that. It kills more than 7,500 people in the UK every year and ruins the lives of thousands more.

Chiles had the answer. According to his figures, the NHS spends £3bn per year treating alcohol related diseases. The drinks industry sells £16bn of booze. But of that, £10bn in duty finds its way to the Treasury. So, it’s a matter of economics. The more money we spend on drink, the more money we make. Is that the message in a bottle?

It can’t be. Because if that was true, why hasn’t England followed in Scotland’s footsteps and introduced Minimum Unit Pricing? A 50p minimum charge per unit of alcohol would surely make more money, wouldn’t it? Sadly not. It’s that very policy, according to Chiles, that prices super strength cider out of the market north of the border. And there is no political thirst for such a move in England even though indications are that the Scottish initiative appears to be cutting the numbers of people suffering liver disease.

I should come clean here. I’m an alcoholic who no longer drinks. My disease crept up on me while I was being overly-social. Celebrations, commiserations, tough days at the office, easy like Sunday mornings, girding the loins, laying the ghosts – I drank a toast to every occasion. I loved it so much, I almost followed in my father’s footsteps and became a statistic. Luckily, when things got bad enough, an old pal helped me get on the right path. That was several years ago, and I’ve learned more about alcohol in my sober years than I ever did when my weekly intake of units was a decent darts score.

If a product is dangerous, we should warn consumers – clearly and simply. And we shouldn’t sell a week’s worth of alcohol units for the price of little Johnny’s bus fare home from school.