Policy paper

2010 to 2015 government policy: harmful drinking

Updated 8 May 2015

This is a copy of a document that stated a policy of the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. The previous URL of this page was https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/reducing-harmful-drinking. Current policies can be found at the GOV.UK policies list.


In England, the ‘lower-risk guidelines’ for alcohol state that men shouldn’t regularly drink more than 3 to 4 units per day and women shouldn’t regularly drink more than 2 to 3 units per day. ‘Regularly’ means drinking most days or every day. Although many people who drink do so within these guidelines, binge drinking accounts for half of all alcohol consumed in the UK.

Drinking more than the amount suggested by the guidelines can damage a person’s health. For example, alcohol is one of the biggest behavioural risks for disease and death (as well as smoking, obesity and lack of physical activity). In 2010 to 2011 there were 1.2 million alcohol-related hospital admissions and around 15,000 deaths caused by alcohol.

This isn’t only a burden on individuals and families but also a drain on hospital resources and public money: every year, alcohol-related harm costs society £21 billion.


We want to reduce alcohol misuse and the harm it causes. We want to see:

  • a change in behaviour so that people think it isn’t acceptable to drink in ways that could cause harm to themselves or others
  • a reduction in the amount of alcohol-fuelled violent crime
  • a reduction in the number of adults drinking above the lower-risk guidelines
  • a reduction in the number of people binge drinking
  • a reduction in the number of alcohol-related deaths
  • a reduction in the number of people aged 11 to 15 drinking alcohol and a reduction in the amount they drink

Helping individuals to change their drinking behaviour

83% of people who regularly drink above the guidelines don’t think their drinking is putting their long-term health at risk. We want everybody to be aware of the risks of drinking more than the lower-risk guidelines and to make sure that people get support to change their drinking behaviour, if they need it.

We are:

  • through our Change4Life campaign, informing people about the risks of drinking above the lower-risk guidelines and giving them tools and tips to reduce their drinking
  • including an alcohol risk assessment in the NHS health check for adults aged 40 to 75
  • spending £448 million on improving the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country (many of them have alcohol-related problems)
  • developing a model to support young people who go to A&E with an alcohol-related problem, so that they get proper follow-up and care (this may include informing their GP or their parents, where appropriate)
  • making sure that hospitals have alcohol liaison nurses to identify people with alcohol-related problems and to help them get the help they need - including treatment for alcohol dependence, where necessary
  • reviewing the alcohol guidelines so that people can make responsible and informed choices about their drinking

Taking action locally

From April 2013, local councils will have a public health grant, which will include money for alcohol services. Through health and wellbeing boards, councils will work with the NHS, Public Health England and local communities to understand local needs and to set public health priorities. So councils will be able to commission prevention and treatment services that meet the needs of local people, including:

  • identification and brief advice programmes delivered by health professionals, which have strong evidence of changing behaviour
  • treatment for alcohol dependence

Improving treatment for alcohol dependence

It is vital that when somebody is dependent on alcohol they get the support they need to make a full recovery.

We have launched a drug and alcohol recovery pilot programme that for the first time involves ‘payment by results’ – paying treatment providers for getting results in 3 areas of people’s lives:

  • service users become free from addiction to drugs and/or alcohol
  • reduced re-offending or continued non-offending
  • improved health and wellbeing

Service users are often frustrated at having several assessments before they go into treatment. The pilot programme has a single point of assessment and referral, which follows the patient through recovery to continually assess progress.

Sharing responsibility with industry

The alcohol industry has a powerful influence on what people buy, and it can reach customers and deliver information in ways that other organisations (including government) can’t. Importantly, they also have the technical expertise to make less harmful alcohol products.

Through our Public Health Responsibility Deal, companies have agreed to encourage a culture of responsible drinking, which will help people to drink within guidelines.

The alcohol industry has made commitments to provide consumer information about alcohol and health including:

  • providing unit information, the lower-risk drinking guidelines and a warning about drinking during pregnancy on at least 80% of product labels by December 2013
  • simple and consistent information about units and other health information in pubs and shops

The strategy also included a new pledge by the alcohol industry to take 1 billion units (around 2%) of pure alcohol out of the market by December 2015. This should have a significant public health impact. We estimate that a 2% drop in consumption will reduce the number of alcohol related deaths by many hundreds a year after 10 years.

Making cheap alcohol less available

Too much alcohol is sold at irresponsibly low prices. Increasing the price of the cheapest drinks reduces demand from the heaviest drinkers, which in turn leads to a reduction in harm.

To make it more expensive to drink excessively, we are considering introducing a minimum price per unit of alcohol. We have recently carried out a consultation to get people’s views on a minimum level of 45p per unit. We have also carried out a consultation on banning special offers (for example 2-for-1) on alcohol in shops. We will now decide on what the minimum unit price should be and whether we should ban special offers.

Stopping advertising appealing to young people

There is a link between advertising and the amount that young people under 18 drink.

We already have specific rules to stop adverts being shown in contexts that have a particular appeal for young people under 18. We are working with the regulators (the Advertising Standards Authority and Ofcom) to:

  • examine ways to make sure that adverts promoting alcohol are not shown during programmes that appeal to young people
  • ensure the full and vigorous application of Advertising Standards Authority powers to online and social media
  • look at rules and incentives that might get in the way of promoting lower strength alcohol products
  • work with industry to develop a scheme to verify people’s actual ages, to be used on alcohol company websites and associated social media


We published the government’s alcohol strategy in 2012. It sets out plans for encouraging a change in drinking behaviour and reducing the harm that excessive drinking causes - to individuals’ health and wellbeing and to society.

Our plans for testing a ‘payment by results’ approach to treatment for drug or alcohol addiction were set out in the 2010 drug strategy, ‘Reducing demand, restricting supply, building recovery: supporting people to live a drug free life’.