Health and wellbeing – May 2021

COVID and alcohol

The Office of National Statistics reports that 7,423 deaths in England and Wales in 2020 were attributed to alcohol misuse, an increase of 20% over 2019. Most of these were said to relate to long term problems. Given that it is already well established that the lockdowns caused a substantial increase in mental health problems and that alcohol is the obvious choice for selfmedication, this is hardly surprising. As reported on the BBC, the prominent anti-alcohol campaigner, Professor Sir Ian Gilmour said the government must urgently introduce an alcohol strategy which addresses health inequalities, improves access to treatment, “and stops the sale of cheap, strong alcohol that is so harmful to health”. I assume that this refers to supermarket sales. Pubs, of course, do not sell drinks that are cheap or, for the most part, strong. I doubt if the good professor intends his words to promote pubs but, all the same, pubs are a controlled environment in which people can safely exercise their right to consume alcohol and, moreover, do so in a social setting. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the lockdowns (and that is too wide a subject for debate in these pages), the unavailability of pubs must have caused some damage. Not for the first time I say that the pub is not the problem, it is part of the answer.

Alcohol Harm Commission

Professor Gilmour is the chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, which recently sponsored a body called the Alcohol Harm Commission whose remit was ‘to examine the current evidence on alcohol harm, recent trends in alcohol harm and the changes needed to reduce the harm caused by alcohol’. Their report was debated in the House of Lords in April and one speaker, Lord Smith of Hindhead had some interesting comments to make. His lordship, who is the chief executive of the Association of Conservative Clubs, told his fellow peers, “Throughout this pandemic we have seen the effects which lower socialisation has had on people’s health and mental health. I have always believed that a society which socialises together is a stronger and healthier society. Although alcohol does not have to be integral to a healthy social life, moderate alcohol consumption undoubtedly plays a large part in British culture and in the social life of many millions of people who enjoy pubs, clubs, bars, restaurants or indeed entertaining at home. Yes, of course overconsumption of alcohol is unhealthy, but our modern-day temperance movement needs to temper creating fear and to start acknowledging that most people have common sense and just enjoy a modest drink.” Lord Smith also criticised the Drinkaware campaign’s advice concerning COVID vaccinations and alcohol. Drinkaware’s advice was ‘we advise that you consider not drinking for two days before, and up to two weeks after you’ve been vaccinated, to try to ensure your immune system is at its best to respond to the vaccine and protect you’. Lord Smith commented, “This advice has since been dismissed by Ministers and the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. Not least because there has been not one study which has tested any correlation between alcohol and the efficacy of either of the vaccines on offer in the UK today, a fact that even Drinkaware acknowledged. I have to say that questions should be raised with Drinkaware about how this irresponsible advice could ever have been given, not least by the drinks industry which for some unknown reason continues to fund them. The problems caused by this type of ‘nonsense’ advice is that they help to create a sense that all advice on alcohol consumption is ‘nonsense’. They undermine the sound and sensible advice which is being given by both government and related health industries. The last thing we need at this point in the pandemic is for people to be afraid to take their vaccination and afraid to socialise with their friends over an alcoholic drink if that’s what they choose to do. I know when I have my second jab, I shall celebrate by raising a gin and tonic to all those who have worked so tirelessly to make the vaccine possible and who have helped in such an enormous unrepayable way to save lives and get the UK back on its feet.” My thanks to Christine Cryne for bringing this to my attention.

Calorie labelling

The Government has once again raised the issue of putting the number of calories on the labels of alcoholic drinks served in pubs. In mid-April, the Morning Advertiser reported that a spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care had confirmed that a consultation was to start ‘soon’ on a plan to make it compulsory for businesses with 250 or more employees to display calorie labels on alcohol products, in line with its obesity strategy. Presumably it is aimed at pubs and restaurants who would be forbidden to sell any product that was not labelled as required but it is not the retailer that would do the labelling.

The Morning Advertiser conducted a survey of its readership of whom 83% rejected the idea. Emma McClarkin, the chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) called the proposal ‘ludicrous’ and ‘outrageous’, especially at a time when pubs were only just beginning to trade again. Kate McNichol, her opposite number at UKHospitality, called on the Government to work with the hospitality sector on ‘workable solutions that strike a balance between meeting public health objectives and not creating additional business burdens’. James Calder, chief executive of the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA), added that the plan would be ‘another costly and complicated hit to struggling pubs and breweries’ in terms of devising new labelling and pump clips and working out the calorie value. He explained, “As small breweries are at the cutting edge of innovation they brew different beers throughout the year and use specialist ingredients. This means it’s much more difficult to calculate calorie content accurately, which can change over time. The vast majority cannot afford expensive labs used by global breweries that make the same beer every day of the year.”

Alcohol risk assessments

This comes from an e-mail sent to a CAMRA branch colleague. I’m not sure what credibility this proposal might have because it is being put forward by a private health and safety software company which, presumably, will benefit from it. It does however give an indication of the current thinking in certain quarters, even if it somewhat presumptuous. The company is proposing that Health & Safety style risk assessments be required for those drinking alcohol in pubs, with, in their words, “drinkers signing off on the potential effects booze will have on their bodies, allowing them to make smarter choices with alcohol which can benefit them in the long term.” A company spokesman continued, “It’s safe to say that even though we all know the effects of drinking a lot of alcohol, many people seem to be ignoring the facts, so maybe they need to be hit with a constant reminder every time they order a drink. If we’re killjoys saying this, then we’re happy to be killjoys.” There is an obvious flaw here which suggests a lack of research. I repeat what I say above; pubs are part of the answer, not the problem. The damage is done by drinking at home and I can’t see how you are going to get risk assessments signed for that.