|The timing could not have been more cruel. Yesterday the Lancet medical journal published a new study suggesting that Britain has the steepest increase in death rates from liver cirrhosis in western Europe just days after the heaviest drinking season of the year. Yet its warning could not have been more timely. Where once, in the 1950s, the UK had the lowest death rates of cirrhosis in western Europe, the mortality rate for men has increased fivefold in England and Wales and sixfold in Scotland. In women there were corresponding fourfold increases. More serious still, the increases decade by decade have been accelerating, while the rest of Europe's have declined by 20% to 30% since the early 1970s. England is now in the middle of the European pack with Scotland approaching top position.|
The blame was placed squarely on increases in consumption, particularly wine and spirits. Total recorded alcohol consumption doubled between 1960 and 2002. In an accompanying commentary, the government was rightly criticised for turning "a determined blind eye" to the problem of rising cumulative consumption. The alcohol chapter in the last public health white paper was the weakest in the document. Some 22,000 people a year are killed by excessive drinking yet only one in 10 problem drinkers currently gets help. The best step towards reducing alcohol consumption involves both education programmes - such as Australia pioneered among young people - and wider access to treatment. A second warning concerns social change: a century ago Scotland's cirrhosis mortality was half of England's; today the positions have been reversed.
Meanwhile on a separate drugs front, the home secretary signalled there would be "a renewed commitment" to educating the public about the potential dangers of cannabis. There were signs that sensibly he would not restore cannabis to the more serious B category. New research suggests for a tiny minority of people, cannabis might not just exacerbate a serious mental condition but perhaps even cause it. But we could be talking of much fewer than 1% of the 3.6m cannabis users. The drug was only downgraded from B to C in January 2004, a move which was supported by the police and a special inquiry on drug use that reported in 2000. Even the mental health charity Rethink has urged ministers to deal with the risks rather than "fiddle with its legal status" - a verdict the advisory council on drug misuse that looked at the research will endorse, as should the home secretary.