A group of ‘experts’ is once again lobbying the government over a UK health ‘crisis’. But the solution they offer is possibly nothing more than a tax on the poorest people in society. And it would be another in a long line of them.
Here come the ‘experts’
New research estimates that alcohol misuse will lead to 62,905 deaths between 2017 and 2022 and cost the NHS £16.74bn. Analysis from the Alcohol Research Group (ARG) at Sheffield University says that 32,475 deaths will be from liver cancer and 22,519 from alcoholic liver disease. And this study has led to further calls for the government to introduce a minimum unit price (MUP) on alcohol.
Numerous medical experts and alcohol-related groups have said the ARG research compounds the case for MUP. Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA), said the ARG research gave:
clear and compelling new evidence… on the effectiveness of MUP.
Campaigners in favour of an MUP argue that it effectively targets the cheap alcohol that young people and addicts drink; but also, that it only has a small impact on those who drink moderately, including those on low incomes. They cite various studies to back up their claims. But these studies fail to consider one crucial factor: the link between alcohol consumption and socioeconomic status (SES) – i.e. drinking and poverty.
The ARG research on MUP found that, broadly, the poorest people were buying more alcohol at 50p a unit than moderate drinkers, whatever their income. The group’s latest research estimates that introducing a 50p MUP would, within five years, mean 1,150 fewer deaths due to drink; 74,500 fewer admissions to hospital because of alcohol; a £326m saving to the NHS; and a £711m drop in the value of crime caused by alcohol consumption.
But as The Canary previously reported, the research has fundamental flaws. It uses “elasticity matrices” which model the relationship between alcohol price and the change in consumption for different demographics. But these don’t consider people as individuals, with individual nuances to alcohol. And other research from Canada showed that, while MUP decreased alcohol-related crime, at the same time Class A drug-related offences actually rose. Also, there was a significant increase in reported addiction and overdoses relating to prescription drugs.
But it is the facts about alcohol consumption and SES that campaigners seem to ignore. That is, the poorer you are, the worse effect alcohol has on your life.
A medical emergency?
- A 63% rise in the number of alcohol-related hospital in-patient admissions since 2005.
- A&E attendances due to alcohol poisoning have seen a 104% rise.
- Rates of A&E admissions due to alcohol poisoning were three and a half times higher among those living in the 20% most deprived areas of England than those in the least deprived areas.
- 24% (the highest figure) of all alcohol-related deaths are in the poorest category of SES.
- The poorest people are nearly three times more likely to develop alcohol-related liver disease than the richest.
- Those in the bottom SES were the most frequent and heaviest ‘binge drinkers’; which in turn made up the majority of alcohol-related A&E attendances.
What this shows, and what the policymakers don’t ‘get’ with MUP, is that alcohol abuse is a class issue. While alcohol dependency and addiction can affect anyone, regardless of their SES, the abuse is most common among the poorest. And as The Canary previously documented, these same patterns exist in smoking and obesity.
Another tax on the poor
In short, the poor aren’t drinking themselves to death because they enjoy it; it’s often unconsciously to escape the harsh realities of 21st century, poverty-ridden corporatist life. As psychiatrist and psychologist Dr Gabor Maté says in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction:
A sense of deficient emptiness pervades our entire culture. The… addict is more painfully conscious of this void than most people and has limited means of escaping it. The rest of us find other ways of suppressing our fear of emptiness or distracting ourselves from it. When we have nothing to occupy our minds, bad memories, troubling anxieties, unease or the nagging mental stupor we called boredom can arise. At all costs, drug addicts want to escape spending ‘alone time’ with their minds. To a lesser degree, behavioural addictions are also responses to this terror of the void.
Blinded by science?
But the so-called ‘experts’ and medical professionals’ response to a fairly obvious problem is to slap another tax on the symptom, not address the underlying sickness. Crude measures on sugar, tobacco, alcohol and drugs do nothing to address why the poorest people abuse these in such vast quantities. It merely hopes that ‘nannying’ people, or plunging them into even greater poverty, will solve the problem.
Policymakers and medical professionals need to realise that alcohol, drugs, sugar, tobacco and addiction are not generally the cause of a problem, but the symptom of another: in this case the corporatist capitalism pervading the 21st century UK. But until they do, blunt instruments like the MUP will only serve to worsen the financial and medical outcomes of the poorest people in society.
– If you or someone you know are living with alcoholism, you can call Drinkline on 0300 123 1110 (Mon-Fri 9am-8pm, weekends 11am-4pm)
– If it is a medical emergency, call 999.
– Join The Canary, so we can keep challenging the status quo.
Featured image via Flickr