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Smoking and Drinking on the Decline in the UK but Still Generating Controversy

Posted on Jul 30, 2013 by Sergio Ulloa ()  | Tags: drinking, England, health campaigns, Healthcare, lifestyle issues, smoking, smoking ban, United Kingdom

For fully fifty years there has been a simple and oft repeated message from heath professionals across the world - ' Stop smoking and keep alcohol consumption to ' moderate'  levels'.

All of the ailments that tend to lead to early death - cardiac disease, strokes and the principal cancers are all strongly associated  with these two 'lifestyle' issues. The impact over the long term of that campaigning has become apparent but at the same time there has been recent resistance in the UK to attempts to push  these campaigns into new areas - particularly associated with advertising for cigarettes and pricing of alcohol.

Over the last forty years, smoking has declined by more than half in Britain and while over 45% of the population were regular smokers in 1974, only 20% of the current population smoke today. The gap between men smoking  as compared to women has narrowed over this period too - though slightly more men than women still indulge in the habit. Smoking rates in the UK - for both men and for women are now slightly higher than in the United States.

What is perhaps particularly encouraging is that the incidence of smoking among schoolchildren does appear to be falling. This is significant as previous evidence has suggested that those who start smoking as youngsters are most likely to persist with it through their lifetimes.

In Britain, although some 25% of 11-15 years olds say that have smoked at least once, this is less than half the number of thirty years ago;  the number of these children reporting themselves as regular smokers has also halved to about 5%.

Curbs on advertising, more powerful messages on cigarette packs about its dangers and the progressive banning of smoking in work places and in leisure premises may all bearing down on the numbers who do smoke but health campaigners are adamant that there is no case for easing up on the pressure.

However, the UK Government have recently put on hold plans to allow sale of cigarettes only in plain packs which have no individual branding but which do have strong messages on the dangers of smoking. The delay is reported as being necessary to allow the impact of a similar initiative in Australia to be fully evaluated.

The government is said to be concerned about the impact on employment of further falls in cigarette consumption and there have also been claims made that Government would be liable for claims for compensation from tobacco companies for loss of intellectual property rights associated with advertising.

The issue turns on the role that pack advertising may play in encouraging younger people to take up smoking for the first time. Anti- smoking campaigners see this as a crucial issue  - their opponents argue that the case that this advertising encourages new smokers is not proven.

The confirmation of the delay  - which follows the non-appearance of proposals for necessary legislation - means that there is no prospect of these proposals becoming law before the next UK General  Election, due in Spring 2015.

As with smoking, the long term trends indicate alcohol may also be  playing a smaller part in UK life. Only 16% of men say that they drink alcohol on at least five days each week compared with about 22% in 1982. For women, the equivalent statistics are 9% and 13%. Furthermore, statistics over a more recent period ( 2005- 2011) also suggest that younger men are possibly drinking less during individual drinking sessions but total consumption of alcohol is higher by about 40% than it was in the early 1980's.

As with plain cigarette packaging, heath campaigners feel they have experienced a recent set back in the UK when another innovation they had argued vigorously for has been put on hold by the Government despite the early full hearted endorsement of the idea by Prime Minister David Cameron.

This related to the setting of a minimum unit price for alcohol. Research in Canada has suggested that upping the price of the cheapest alcohol  by 10% there has led to a 32% fall in alcohol related deaths and a drop of 9% in hospital admissions. The impact of minimum pricing is seen to be greatest on younger drinkers.

However, the proposals to bring in minimum pricing in England did face strong counter-arguments - not least from the alcohol industry. These stressed that minimum pricing would have a particular impact on the pockets of responsible drinkers and it appears that these may have had their way as the Government has been reluctant to cause too much disruption to the lifestyle of middle aged middle class people whose votes are vital for re-election.

By contrast, in Scotland, the parliament has made clear that it does intent to bring in minimum pricing legislation and a legal battle is well underway with the drinks industry contending that  such laws would contravene European competition regulations. The first round of this was won by the Parliament in early May but the battle is likely to continue to the highest level of the European courts and last until 2015.

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