Why minimum alcohol pricing eliminates the need for fining binge drinkers on the NHS

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Image courtesy of zirconicusso at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Towards the end of last year, I ran a poll online asking potential participants whether they agreed with the idea of fining patients who use the NHS as a result of binge drinking. Nearly 58% of people who responded to the poll voted against the idea, but over 40% sympathised with such a policy (link via my Facebook page). Albeit an online poll, the majority don’t support such an idea becoming reality, yet it isn’t such a taboo to such a significant minority of people.

But the problem of binge drinking generally is an issue that has become continuously discussed in terms of how to reduce it in order to reduce the problems that it causes as a result of it’s destructive nature. More awareness of the consequences binge drinking causes to society has slowly become more and more recognised over the years. For example, Dr Cliff Mann, President of the College of Emergency Medicine, once advocated a ‘zero tolerance’ approach by the police in order to make binge drinkers more aware that their actions have consequences (link via The Independent).

He cannot be blamed for his sentiments, given that he has first hand experience through his own professional life working on the frontline within emergency medicine. It cannot be doubted for a moment that irresponsible use of alcohol is causing serious and unwelcoming consequences to society and exerting pressure on the provision of the NHS. In 2014/15, according to ISD Scotland, over 35,000 acute hospital stays were down to alcohol. Although in past years this figure has been higher, this is still absolutely unacceptable.

Binge drinking is an utterly irresponsible, destructive and nauseating piece of behaviour which should be absolutely discouraged at every opportunity. It makes me passionately angry that for too many decades, taxpayers money has been used to try and treat the symptoms of a problem and not utilised effectively to treat the root causes. Alcohol is far too readily available and sometimes at an obscenely low cost in the context of things. But that said, although past personal sentiments on social media may suggest otherwise, I have slowly turned against the idea of introducing a system of fines on patients who use the NHS as a result of excessive and irresponsible alcohol consumption. And for two reasons.

Firstly, we don’t need to go this far at all. If Scotland is to successfully implement new legislation through the form of a minimum alcohol pricing bill then much of the root cause of the current problems faced will begin to be effectively tackled.  Increasing the price of alcohol simply makes sense. Consumers will think twice about their choices and for their own benefit. This is not about punishing people for choosing to consume alcohol, but rather for them to make better and more informed choices about what they purchase and consume. And also, it goes some way to changing the culture around alcohol.

And secondly, introducing a system to fine patients for being admitted to hospital as a result of binge drinking will bring about a series of unwarranted problems. Healthcare professionals on the frontline of our hospitals already suffer from an unacceptable level of verbal and even physical abuse, even without a system of issuing fines. So why make their working lives more of a misery by adding to their workload by determining who has been deemed irresponsible enough to be fined for binge drinking?

Proponents of a such a move to bring in fines could argue that fining patients may act as a way to cut down on the abuse NHS workers receive. But I doubt that this would become the resulting reality. And on a separate note, there is the real danger that vulnerable people who have had their lives utterly blighted by alcohol will not be granted the compassion that they need in order to move forward in being freed from the despair that the misuse of alcohol causes. Fining them for being admitted to hospital merely rubs salt into the wounds, which is not desirable nor in threat interests of both patient and society.

Make no doubts – I utterly abhor the abuse of alcohol. If I find myself elected into Parliament one day then it will be a key area that I will want to pursue and I would be more than willing to launch a major effort against the misuse of alcohol, in order to improve the health of people, the nation and society plus create a happier environment for us all. The misuse of alcohol ruins lives, compromises public safety, costs taxpayers a lot of money, exerts a lot of pressure on our public services and brings about a negative reputation to society as a whole.

And it is frankly unfair for responsible drinkers and teetotallers taxes to be tragically wasted on merely treating the symptoms of binge drinking, when the potential exists for this problem to be robustly tackled for everyone’s benefit. The Scottish Government’s proposal for minimum alcohol pricing will go a long way to bringing about the much needed change in culture that is so badly needed in order to make the streets of our towns and cities far more pleasant places to explore. Fairness must prevail for all.

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