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Communicating the health harms of alcohol to the public

As Alcohol Awareness Week 2016 begins, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance and special adviser on alcohol to the RCP, explains what the government should do to communicate the harms associated with alcohol to the public.

The public have the right to know about the health risks associated with alcohol, so that they are empowered to make informed choices about their drinking.

Yet worryingly, awareness of the risks is very low. For example, only 1 in 10 people in the UK are aware of the link between alcohol and cancer.[1]

This year’s Alcohol Awareness Week, which begins today, seeks to do something about this. With the theme of Knowing the Risks, over the next 7 days alcohol charities, treatment services, NHS organisations and local authorities will be raising awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer, heart disease, liver disease and depression, and making the public aware that:

  • there are almost 23,000 deaths each year in England due to alcohol[2]
  • there are over a million alcohol-related hospital admissions each year in the UK[3]
  • one person dies every hour in the UK from alcohol-related causes[4].

Following Alcohol Awareness Week, however, more needs to be done to make sure the public are aware of the risks associated with alcohol. We need action at governmental level, where the resources exist for sustained national initiatives.

Government initiatives would be timely, as they would follow the release this year of the new alcohol consumption guidelines. These guidelines outline the full range of harms associated with alcohol. They advise that, to keep risks low, you are safest to drink no more than 14 units per week, with these units spread out over 4–5 days.

Specifically, the government should do two things to communicate the risks, and the new guidelines:

  1. The government should develop mass media campaigns outlining the risks. These could include TV and radio advertisements, social media campaigns, and messages on public transport.
  2. The government should introduce mandatory labelling of all alcoholic products, containing clear and legible health information about the harms associated with drinking.

Once introduced, these measures will lead to a population more in control of their health, and better able to avoid the health harms associated with alcohol. There can be no rationale for withholding from the public information to help them make more informed choices – the government should introduce these measures now.

[1] Buykx P, Li J, Gavens L, Lovatt M, Gomes de Matos E, Holmes J, Hooper L and Meier P (2015) An investigation of public knowledge of the link between alcohol and cancer. University of Sheffield and Cancer Research UK.

[2] Public Health England. Local alcohol profiles for England, 2016.

[3] Health and Social Care Information Centre. Statistics on alcohol 2016. London: HSCIC, 2016.

[4] Office for National Statistics. Alcohol-related deaths in the United Kingdom: registered in 2012. London: ONS, 2015.


For more information please contact Matt Chorley, policy and communications officer of the Alcohol Health Alliance: matt.chorley@rcplondon.ac.uk.