Alcohol Guidelines - Science and Technology Committee Contents

1  Introduction

The inquiry

1. Alcohol has been produced and consumed by humans for thousands of years and is an accepted part of our society today. Although it has applications in medicine and industrial processes, its most popular use is as an intoxicant. Drunk in moderation, alcohol can provide enjoyment and encourage social cohesion. Excessive drinking, on the other hand, is viewed as a serious problem with a range of health, social and economic consequences.

2. Despite the long history of alcohol consumption and misuse in the UK, Government guidance on individual drinking was not developed until the 1980s. Since then, successive governments have produced various alcohol strategies and policies aimed at reducing alcohol misuse and its consequences. After the Coalition Government was formed in May 2010, it outlined its plans for alcohol policy in the document The Coalition: Our Plan for Government, focusing on pricing, taxation and availability of alcohol.[1] In March 2011, the Government produced the Public Health Responsibility Deal, in which its core commitment on alcohol was described: to "foster a culture of responsible drinking, which will help people to drink within guidelines".[2] We were interested in the robustness of the guidelines, particularly as they are a foundation for alcohol policies yet have not been the subject of recent Parliamentary scrutiny. We were also interested in the differences in approaches among the devolved administrations. We decided to explore how evidence-based the Government's guidelines on alcohol consumption are and how well they are communicated to and understood by the public. In July 2011, we issued a call for evidence, seeking written submissions on the following questions:

a)  What evidence are Government's guidelines on alcohol intake based on, and how regularly is the evidence base reviewed?

b)  Could the evidence base and sources of scientific advice to Government on alcohol be improved?

c)  How well does the Government communicate its guidelines and the risks of alcohol intake to the public?

d)  How do the UK Government's guidelines compare to those provided in other countries?[3]

3. We received 29 written submissions. On 12 October 2011 we took oral evidence from Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Royal College of Physicians; Dr Richard Harding, Member of the 1995 Interdepartmental Working Group on Sensible Drinking; Professor Nick Heather, Alcohol Research UK; Dr Marsha Morgan, Institute of Alcohol Studies; Jeremy Beadles, Chief Executive, Wine and Spirit Trade Association; Professor Averil Mansfield, British Medical Association; and Chris Sorek, Chief Executive, Drinkaware. On 26 October 2011 we took oral evidence from Anne Milton MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Public Health; Dr Mark Prunty, Senior Medical Officer for Substance Misuse Policy, Department of Health; and Chris Heffer, Deputy Director, Alcohol and Drugs, Department of Health. We would like to thank everyone who provided oral and written evidence to our inquiry.

Structure of the report

4. The risks posed by alcohol consumption range from health to social harms. While we recognise the importance of strategies to deal with social harms, in this inquiry we have focused primarily on health harms as these are the basis of the Department of Health's alcohol guidelines. Chapter 2 of this report provides background information and chapter 3 looks at the evidence base underpinning the current guidelines and at scientific evidence that has emerged since the guidelines were last reviewed. Chapter 4 examines public understanding and communication of the guidelines and of the health risks posed by drinking.[4]

1   Cabinet Office, The Coalition: Our Plan for Government, May 2010, p 13 Back

2   Department of Health, The Public Health Responsibility Deal, March 2011, p 10 Back

3   "Committee announces new inquiry into the evidence base for alcohol guidelines", Science and Technology Committee press notice, 19 July 2011  Back

4   Throughout this report, "drinking" refers specifically to drinking alcohol. Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 9 January 2012