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The Public Health Burden of Alcohol and the Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of Alcohol Control Policies: An evidence review

Alcohol is a prominent commodity in the UK marketplace. It is widely used in numerous social situations. For many, alcohol is associated with positive aspects of life; however there are currently over 10 million people drinking at levels which increase their risk of health harm. Among those aged 15 to 49 in England, alcohol is now the leading risk factor for ill-health, early mortality and disability and the fifth leading risk factor for ill-health across all age groups.

Since 1980, sales of alcohol in England and Wales have increased by 42%, from roughly 400 million litres in the early 1980s, with a peak at 567 million litres in 2008, and a subsequent decline. This growth has been driven by increased consumption among women, a shift to higher strength products, and increasing affordability of alcohol, particularly through the 1980s and 1990s. Over this period, the way in which alcohol is sold and consumed also changed. In 2016 there were 210,000 license premises in England and Wales, a 4% increase on 2010. There has been a shift in drinking location such that most alcohol is now bought from shops and drunk at home. Although consumption has declined in recent years, levels of abstinence have also increased. Consequently, it is unclear how much of the decline is actually related to drinkers consuming less alcohol and how much to an increasing proportion of the population not drinking at all.

In recent years, many indicators of alcohol-related harm have increased. There are now over 1 million hospital admissions relating to alcohol each year, half of which occur in the lowest three socioeconomic deciles. Alcohol-related mortality has also increased, particularly for liver disease which has seen a 400% increase since 1970, and this trend is in stark contrast to much of Western Europe. In England, the average age at death of those dying from an alcohol-specific cause is 54.3 years. The average age of death from all causes is 77.6 years. More working years of life are lost in England as a result of alcohol-related deaths than from cancer of the lung, bronchus, trachea, colon, rectum, brain, pancreas, skin, ovary, kidney, stomach, bladder and prostate, combined.

Despite this burden of harm, some positive trends have emerged over this period, particularly indicators which relate to alcohol consumption among those aged less than 18 years, and there have been steady reductions in alcohol-related road traffic crashes.

The public health burden of alcohol is wide ranging, relating to health, social or economic harms. These can be tangible, direct costs (including costs to the health, criminal justice and welfare systems), or indirect costs (including the costs of lost productivity due to absenteeism, unemployment, decreased output or lost working years due to premature pension or death). Harms can also be intangible, and difficult to cost, including those assigned to pain and suffering, poor quality of life or the emotional distress caused by living with a heavy drinker. The spectrum of harm ranges from those that are relatively mild, such as drinkers loitering near residential streets, through to those that are severe, including death or lifelong disability. Many of these harms impact upon other people, including relationship partners, children, relatives, friends, co-workers and strangers.

In sum, the economic burden of alcohol is substantial, with estimates placing the annual cost to be between 1.3% and 2.7% of annual GDP. Few studies report costs on the magnitude of harm to people other than the drinker, so the economic burden of alcohol consumption is generally underestimated. Crucially, the financial burden which alcohol-related harm places on society is not reflected in its market price, with taxpayers picking up a larger amount of the overall cost compared to the individual drinkers. This should provide impetus for governments to implement effective policies to reduce the public health impact of alcohol, not only because it is an intrinsically desirable societal goal, but because it is an important aspect of economic growth and competitiveness.

Reflecting three key influencers of alcohol consumption – price (affordability), ease of purchase (availability) and the social norms around its consumption (acceptability) – an extensive array of policies have been developed with the primary aim of reducing the public health burden of alcohol. The present review evaluates the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of each of these policy approaches.