Published: 31st July 2009
The Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) is an interdenominational organisation with more than 4,500 British doctors as members. All are Christians who desire their professional and personal lives to be governed by the Christian faith as revealed in the Bible. Members practise in all branches of the profession, and through the International Christian Medical and Dental Association are linked with like-minded colleagues in over 100 other countries.CMF regularly makes submissions on ethical and professional matters to Government committees and official bodies. All submissions are on our website at www.cmf.org.uk.
Christian Medical Fellowship has no formal policy on alcohol as such, and our members make different personal choices, but we are united in concern at the severe problems consequent upon alcohol misuse which are currently facing Britain.
We note the estimated annual cost to society of alcohol-related crime and disorder at between £8-12 billion, with the costs for health harms estimated at £2.7 billion. As members of society and taxpayers, our members are obviously concerned for the former, but our remit concerns the latter.
We appreciate that the Department of Health jointly leads on the Government's Alcohol Strategy, but wanted briefly to take the opportunity of this consultation to support in general the consultation proposals aimed at the licensed trade, and also to make further comment about health-related matters, in particular the question of alcohol pricing. We are advised by members 'with expertise in health promotion'.
We strongly endorse the 'new requirement proposed through the Food Safety Act 1990 to ensure that those retailing alcohol must display alcohol unit content information for a representative sample of drinks, and that off-trade premises must also display health information', though we question why it is only 'a representative sample of drinks' and not all drinks? We agree 'there is clear scope for improving customer knowledge and awareness of alcohol units and the risks of alcohol consumption'.
While education about health risks of alcohol will cause some to reduce their intake, there is clear evidence that it will not for others. Research shows clearly that alcohol-related morbidity and mortality are directly related to the quantity of alcohol consumed by a population, which in turn is directly related to the availability and acceptability of alcohol in that population. Education will be of value in the question of social acceptability; but price is critical to the question of availability to individuals.
We therefore strongly endorse the consideration at 3.28 of 'prohibiting retailers from offering alcohol for sale at prices below the level of the excise duty paid on the product plus the VAT due'. These supermarket 'loss leaders' must be stopped.
However, this does not go far enough, and while the responsibility for considering the following may fall more to the Department of Health than to the Home Office, we want strongly to endorse the 16 March 2009 call by the Chief Medical Officer that no alcoholic drinks should be sold for less than 50 pence per unit of alcohol contained. This would add around £1 a month to the drinks bill of a moderate drinker - but more for those heavy drinkers who are at risk. After ten years such a move would lead to 3,400 fewer deaths and 100,000 fewer hospital admissions a year.
We understand this suggestion has been rejected so far. To combat the epidemic of alcohol misuse, evidence-based solutions are needed. Education-based 'sensible drinking' strategies have merit but tend to assume falsely that an intemperate minority contribute the bulk of problems in the community, and also that people make rational and objective choices about their drinking. But as stated above, the quantity of alcohol consumed by a population is critical.
The 'prevention paradox' notes that while very heavy drinkers do incur more alcohol-related problems, they are a small minority. Although alcohol-related problems occur much less frequently among the moderate majority, that population is a very large one. The mathematics means that a lower problem rate among a very large number of people results in a larger overall number of health problems. Hence the reduction in consumption calculated from the CMO's 50 pence per unit proposal would lead after ten years to 3,400 fewer deaths and 100,000 fewer hospital admissions a year. Price (via taxation) is thus a very effective preventive tool, even if unpopular in political terms.
So far we have spoken as doctors, in line with the British Medical Association and other medical bodies, but there has always been a strong tradition of temperance associated with the Christian church, not least as a response to the appalling health and social problems caused by alcohol in previous generations. Writing almost 2,000 years ago to the Ephesian church, the Bible records the apostle Paul saying, 'Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.'
Alcohol does not just damage directly, but through the irresponsible behaviour associated with excessive drinking has indirect effects, such as in the tragically high rates of sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies.
Political answers to dealing with the effects of alcohol can only ever be partial. Prevention is better than cure, and it will take a change of heart, a different 'spirit', for individuals and for society at large to curb alcohol misuse significantly. The Christian church has a vital part to play here.
Philippa Taylor (CMF Head of Public Policy) 020 7234 9664
Steven Fouch (CMF Head of Communications) 020 7234 9668
Alistair Thompson on 07970 162 225
Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) was founded in 1949 and is an interdenominational organisation with over 4,000 British doctor members in all branches of medicine. A registered charity, it is linked to about 65 similar bodies in other countries throughout the world.
CMF exists to unite Christian doctors to pursue the highest ethical standards in Christian and professional life and to increase faith in Christ and acceptance of his ethical teaching.