Select Committee on Scottish Affairs First Report


13. Health issues


144. The health consequences of alcohol consumption formed part of our investigation, as did the health implications of soft drinks consumption. We acknowledge that the amount of evidence taken was modest. The great majority of Scots drink sensibly. Evidence from the Greater Glasgow Health Board[199] illustrated the extent of the problems that can however be caused by excessive drinking. In Glasgow, problem drinking is responsible for between 20 to 30 per cent of acute hospital admissions; general practitioners see around 4,700 people with severe drinking problems every month. The problem is not of course confined to Glasgow. Similar difficulties occur across Scotland. The health experts who gave oral evidence stressed the link between excess drinking and social deprivation; problem drinking is probably higher in Glasgow because of the very high levels of deprivation found in parts of the city.[200]

145. The tendency to drink to excess was not believed to be genetic. There is little evidence of an "alcoholic personality". Over-consumption is rooted in social reasons, A number of psychological and cultural factors were thought to explain the condition. One witness told us that individuals tend to drink too much when they their lives are stressful;[201] getting drunk is a way of relieving stress. Dr Plant of the Alcohol and Health Research Centre explained that Scotland had a tradition of "binge drinking".[202] The occasional bout of this type of behaviour may be reasonably harmless, but when it is related to drinking in order to try and relieve stress it can lead to long term problems.

146. Dr Plant noted an increasing trend towards drinking more during the week. This was due, especially among the middle classes, to a greater "Europeanisation" of drinking habits. More people now drink alcohol, especially wine, with food. Relative to income alcohol has decreased in price. Young people are now drinking dangerously at an earlier age.[203] This has led to an increase in the number of health problems associated with alcohol. Dr Gruer of the Greater Glasgow Health Board pointed to a rise in cases of cirrhosis of the liver, and that the incidence of this disease in the UK was now approaching the levels traditionally seen in continental Europe.[204] Paradoxically, there was little investment in alcohol treatment services.[205]

147. The alcoholic drinks industry is concerned about misuse of its products and promotes sensible drinking.[206] The Portman Group is an independent organisation of alcoholic drinks producers whose aim is to combat alcohol misuse and under-age drinking, using a variety of initiatives, including proof of age cards.[207] During oral evidence the SWA were asked to comment on the suggestion that some proportion of excise duty should be hypothecated to deal with alcohol misuse. It said:

    "... that is a matter for Government ... [who] ... get large sums of money from taxes and it is up to them how they spend it".

148. We came across little or no evidence of the effectiveness of the Portman Group during our study. This maybe a result of relative modesty. On the other hand it could lead to the conclusion being drawn that, given the profits that are available to alcoholic drinks manufacturers, more might be done by the industry to help overcome some of the increasing problems associated with the use and misuse of the product. In contrast to the amounts spent on advertising by alcoholic drinks producers, Dr Gruer estimated that GGHB spends less than £100,000 per year on alcohol-related health promotion and received virtually no specific money for anti-alcohol advertising.[208] With alcohol consumption patterns changing and growing, particularly amongst the young, we believe that more funding should be made available from both the industry and Government to enable increased availability of measures aimed at preventing and curing misuse.

149. We referred earlier to the fact that the big companies producing alcoholic drinks are engaged in a fiercely competitive global market. One of their most significant weapons was advertising. Unlike other drugs, alcohol is an integral part of our culture,[209] associated with pleasure and socialisation. While advertising of alcohol undoubtedly contributes to this outlook, it is difficult to argue that it causes it.

150. Health witnesses pointed to evidence that high levels of advertising did not cause people to drink more.[210] Advertising may cause people to switch brands, but there was no clear evidence that it increased the overall level of consumption or the type of alcohol consumed. It is therefore difficult to argue that the increased intensity of competition in the drinks industry has led companies to behave irresponsibly.

151. Some of the problems we have identified relate to devolved matters and fall within the responsibility of the Scottish Executive. But we would urge the Scottish Executive fully to recognise the current trends in alcohol misuse and to take appropriate action.

Soft drinks

152. Health worries were also raised in connection with soft drinks. The Chief Dental Officer for Scotland said that soft drinks, especially when consumed by the young are a major issue in this field. He argued that soft drinks "now constitute one of the main sources of drinks for young children and are being used in younger and younger children, as young as one or two years of age". He noted that the average soft drink contains the equivalent of between six and eight teaspoons of sugar and that this, in addition to their acidic nature, makes them "perfectly designed to either rot or erode teeth".[211] The easy availability of soft drinks in schools and other public places, with no warning about the potential damage to dental health caused concern.[212] Mr Barr confirmed categorically that additional sugar was not added to soft drinks produced for the Scottish market in order to satisfy the collective sweet tooth there.[213]

153. The Chief Dental Officer also expressed concern about additives such as caffeine, which may contribute to the addictive nature of soft drinks. The Food Standards Agency Scotland recently undertook a consultation exercise on a proposal for EU legislation on labelling of foods containing caffeine and quinine. The proposals, if accepted, would require that these ingredients were declared when used as a flavouring. A label statement of "high caffeine content" would also be required, along with the exact amount of the additive above a given level. A decision on the proposals by the EU may come in December 2001.[214]

154. We note here that evidence submitted by the British Soft Drinks Association showed that, on a population basis, Scots consumed proportionately more soft drinks than the rest of the UK.[215] The concerns raised by the Chief Dental Officer, particularly with regard to the increased use of soft drinks by very young children, leads us to recommend that a fuller indication of the composition of soft drinks should be made available to consumers. Parents and consumers should know on an easy to understand basis, such as the number of spoonfuls per container, the exact sugar content of soft drinks. This information should be placed on the container. Consideration should also be given to a specific dental health warning. In addition, we support the EU proposals that labels for soft drinks should say so specifically when caffeine has been used.

199  Greater Glasgow Health Board, Alcohol Strategy 2000. Back

200  HC 114-iv, Session 2000-01, Q.633. Back

201  Ibid, Q.645. Back

202  Ibid, Q.631. Back

203  Ibid, Q.639. Back

204  Ibid, Q.643. Back

205  Ibid, Q.635. Back

206  HC 973-ii, Session 1999-2000, Q.185; HC 114-i, Session 2000-2001, Q.280; HC 114-ii, Session 2000-01, Q.359. Back

207  Ibid, Q.185; Ibid, Q.280. Back

208  HC 114-iv, Session 2000-01, Q.651. Back

209  Ibid, Q.647. Back

210  Ibid, Q.649. Back

211  HC 114-v, Session 2001-01, p.255-256. Back

212  IbidBack

213  HC 973-i, Session 1999-2000, Q.57. Back

214  See Proposals for EU Legislation on Labelling of Foods Containing Caffeine and Quinine, Back

215  HC 973-i, Session 1999-2000, p.1, para 3. Back

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