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Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health: speech to the Westminster Health Forum on Alcohol

  • Last modified date:
    7 December 2010

(As delivered.)

Thank you very much, Caroline [Flint].

It’s my absolute pleasure to be here. I’d like to thank the Westminster Health Forum for the invitation, especially given the beautiful surroundings.

I’m minded to accept more invitations to speak here – as many of you will know, the Coalition government has been quite clear about Ministerial travel costs. So any event within walking distance will rise to the top of the pile!

But it’s also my pleasure to meet with people from such a diverse range of organisations; from industry, from health, from policing and from the third sector. It is vital that we continue to work together; across the boundaries between public and private, between government and not-for-profit.
Alcohol affects us all – it affects us as parents, as individuals, it affects families, neighbours and friends. Abused, alcohol reaches into every aspect of family and community life.

And in alcohol policy, as in public health more generally, we need a whole life approach.

We need to better understand what makes people drink too much. We need to better measure success in helping them drink less. And we need to better commission services to help people when drink becomes a problem.

As public spending is subject to ever-greater scrutiny, and money gets ever tighter, we need to re-focus our resources on what works. And it is our belief that you cannot hope to meaningfully reduce alcohol harms by confronting supply alone. You must do something about demand.

That means focusing on the evidence for behaviour change. It means going beyond passively providing information, and looking actively at the question of motivation.

It is a path that is fraught with difficulties, the greatest of which is the tension between individual liberty and personal responsibility.

Because much to the disappointment of some public health professionals, choice remains an individual pursuit.

People are free to drink, and government has learnt to their cost what happens when it insists otherwise.

We cannot frog-march people out of the off-license. We cannot compel them to stop smoking, or force them to practice safe sex.

Our challenge is to make the case that freedom without responsibility is not sustainable.

I have been clear – and the Secretary of State was clear yesterday – that lecturing people on behaviour change does not work.

Legislation has its place and has a role to play in some instances, but we must focus on giving people the means to make the right decisions about their health. On tapping into the power of the group to influence the individual.

We need to create a large space for health information to help people make good choices.

Decisions about alcohol consumption must be informed in order to be meaningful. We want to improve alcohol labelling so that people can make decisions about alcohol armed with all the facts, and we are looking closely at the responses to the recent consultation.

And it’s not to say that we don’t need regulation to ensure that alcohol is traded responsibly.

The environment in which alcohol is sold and consumed must encourage better decision making, not risk taking.
Reviews on alcohol taxation and pricing will report in the autumn - and I know many of you from industry will be working with us on a Responsibility Deal.

But it does mean we need to look again at how we can equip people with the right skills to make the right decisions at the right time. So that we can reduce the human cost of alcohol abuse, and the cost to the NHS, too.

If we take young people at school, how we give them the skills to make decisions about the huge range of difficult choices they come up against.

How when they are revelling in their immortality between the age of 14-24 we get them to behave responsibly.

To do so means fundamentally changing our relationship with alcohol. It’s a relationship which reflects wider social problems – problems that cannot be solved from one Whitehall address alone.

The change has to come from all sides. Retailers, advertisers, health professionals, government – everyone has a part to play. Every government department has a part to play.

That’s where a movement like Change4Life comes into its own: by bringing together people from across sectors.

We believe the next step is for Change4Life to become a genuine social movement, one backed by business. And we’re looking into extending that partnership to include the alcohol industry.

The idea of partnership also informs our vision for alcohol policy across government.

It’s a Department of Health issue, a Home Office issue, a Treasury issue, a work - or workless – issue, it’s an issue for local government, it’s a social justice issue.

The Coalition’s Programme showed a clear commitment to tackling the problems caused by binge-drinking and under-age drinking.

The Home Office and the Treasury will work together to restore the balance between responsible pricing and the interest of the community.

And from a health perspective, we’ve made clear about our desire to empower local communities to be more involved in public health.

It is a desire that will be realised in the creation of the Public Health Service.

I believe that we can bring our national vision for public health together with new local infrastructures to deliver the health outcomes we need.

By strengthening accountability and encouraging local ownership of public health strategies, we can allow a culture of leadership to blossom.

By building evidence and evaluation into the system, we can focus our resources in the right areas.

And by striking the right balance between incentives and environment, we can harness the power of social norms to change behaviour. To change our relationship with alcohol.

In a few months, the Royal Society will celebrate its 350th anniversary.

Much has changed since the Society was founded.
Yet our connection with the past is stronger, our attitudes more similar, than they might first appear.

Early modern society recognised that alcohol was part and parcel of British life. Low-alcohol beers sat alongside strong imported wines. Drinking in moderation was considered healthy; drunkenness was seen as a sin.

One of the Royal Society’s first Presidents, Samuel Pepys, makes plain the distinction.

On one occasion he recalls drinking half a pint of wine mixed with beer ‘for health’s sake’; a tradition which thankfully has not survived.

Yet by the end of the year he had taken a solemn oath to abstain altogether from wine, an oath which – like most New Year’s resolutions – lasted all of six weeks.

His struggles with alcohol reflect the changes in society that were happening around him. As Britons grew wealthier and more worldly, so our access to alcohol grew. It would take a century of progressive deterioration before attitudes toward alcohol changed again.

The problem now is all the more pernicious for its subtlety and its spread; nearly 10 million of us drink too much.

Of all the numbers around alcohol, perhaps this is the most shocking: because people always underestimate their own consumption. And for too many of us, that underestimation is proving lethal.

We are determined to tackle the harm alcohol causes – to our people, our society, and our economy – without affecting those who drink responsibly.

We are determined to change our relationship with alcohol, to employ the power of the group to influence individual decisions.

And we are determined to do so with the help of our partners - in industry, in government, and in the third sector. And with all of you.

Thank you very much.

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