I see last week’s announcement by the British government that they intend to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol in England as a very welcome development for the whole of the United Kingdom.
As Minister for Health for Northern Ireland I had wanted to introduce such a policy as I was astounded by the huge impact alcohol misuse has in Northern Ireland. The wider costs to society are staggering affecting policing, public health and economic productivity not to mention the damage it causes to individual’s mental and physical health. Despite these devastating outcomes I was unable to proceed with the policy as a result of obstacles put in place by Brussels on the grounds of competitive pricing laws. Regrettably the previous government could not be persuaded to get behind the idea despite the support of the Scottish and Welsh Executives.
Here in South Belfast we see the effects of binge drinking most weekends in and around the ‘golden mile’ as our young people take advantage of cheap supermarket booze at home before they head to the city’s pubs and clubs. Violence towards other revelers and members of the emergency services and hospital staff is a regular occurrence. As I have said so many times before the supermarket practice of offering alcohol at a cheaper price than bottled water is a totally unacceptable situation.
However I do realise that setting a minimum unit price for alcohol alone will not solve the problem of binge drinking in our society. We need to change the mindset of not only our young people but also those older folk who may not see themselves as binge drinkers who drink more than the recommended guidelines on a regular basis. They, just as much as the young clubber, may be causing their health irreparable damage that will in turn cost the health service a considerable amount to deal with not to mention the problems it may create for their families and wider society.
Preventative measures are much more cost effective to the individual and society as a whole and that is why I introduced the Public Health Agency that tackles issues such as binge drinking, obesity, sexual health as well as public health, vaccination campaigns etc. It is about equipping people with the information they require to make the informed decisions that prevent them ending up in the GP’s surgery or accident and emergency unit.
There is no one single solution that will solve the problem of binge drinking. However I do believe that in a culture where alcohol is so widely available the introduction of a minimum unit cost will help to restrict access for some of the most vulnerable in our community.
At the same time we do need to look at our attitude to alcohol consumption to help bring to an end the increasing trend for younger and younger people to be filling our liver wards and accident and emergency units.