HL Deb 12 December 2001 vol 629 cc1308-11

2.55 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are proposing to deal with the increase in the number of deaths due to liver disease, particularly among young women.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, the Government are considering the findings on liver disease, referred to in the Chief Medical Officer's annual report published yesterday. We intend to publish a national strategy to tackle alcohol misuse, which will involve all government departments, local organisations such as the NHS, local authorities and the police, as well as voluntary organisations. We are also investing in alcohol education and health promotion to address the issue of problem drinking, particularly among young people.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. However, what immediate steps can the Government take to create an awareness of the risk, and, in particular, the differential risk, between men and women of excess alcohol consumption over the Christmas period? Can a way be found to incorporate that point into the drink-drive campaign?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the drink-drive campaign has already started and therefore it would be difficult to make changes to it. I certainly agree with the noble Baroness that the Chief Medical Officer's report is a wake-up call. We need to ensure that we get across the right health promotion messages, in particular to young women, to ensure that people are aware of the risks that they run in misusing alcohol. We are giving urgent consideration to the CMO's report, both in relation to short-term and immediate health promotion messages that need to be put across and also in relation to a proposed longer-term alcohol health strategy.

Lord Morgan

My Lords, I declare an interest because my late wife died of liver disease at the age of 42. She died as the result of a university visitation to South-East Asia where, I gather, this type of disease is very prevalent. I wonder what warnings are given to intending visitors to that part of the world.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am not aware whether specific warnings are given in relation to liver disease. There are many causes of liver cirrhosis. It can be present at birth as an inherited disease; it can be, as my noble friend has suggested, a side effect of certain medications; or it can be caused by parasitic infections. However, the most common causes are sustained alcohol misuse or the late effects of infection with one of the hepatitis viruses. However, I take my noble friend's point. As part of a general strategy in relation to alcoholism prevention, I shall certainly be prepared to look at the point that he raises.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, the Government promised to publish a national strategy consultation paper last year, yet they have still not done so. What is the reason for that delay? Furthermore, the Minister will have noticed two very worrying studies that have taken place into alcohol abuse among teenagers. What in particular is he doing with his colleagues in the DfES to ensure that proper education programmes are run in schools to warn teenagers of the dangers of alcohol abuse?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, over the past three years the Department for Education and Skills has made £21 million available to schools through the Standards Fund to support the training of teachers and to deliver effective drug, alcohol and tobacco education programmes. Such training and programmes are obviously very important and we shall need to evaluate their success.

So far as concerns the consultation paper, we stated in the NHS Plan that we would implement a strategy by 2004. We shall need to take forward a consultation process as part of that. However, that strategy is best informed by the current work and report of the Chief Medical Officer. I can assure the House that we shall redouble our efforts to ensure that we take forward those messages.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, would the Government consider promoting alternatives to drinking for young women and girls, such as healthy living centres where they will be able to take part in such activities as yoga, aerobics and swimming? Does the Minister agree that that would be a positive measure?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I believe that health promotion messages are likely to be more effective with young people if such messages are positive. That is an important consideration which we shall need to take forward.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for his Answer. But, why should people with terminal liver disease caused by contaminated NHS blood products, not least young women, be treated less favourably than people with HIV from the same cause? Is not that morally wrong and inhumane?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for raising that question. He will know that the first decision on that matter was taken by the previous government. It was reviewed by this Government on coming into office. The position taken by the Department of Health is that where it is not liable it cannot make specific payments. I am afraid that that is the position in the case of the people mentioned by my noble Friend, who have undoubtedly suffered a great tragedy. That decision was reached only after careful consideration.

Lord Patel

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the term "ladette" and its effect on young women? If he is, can he tell the House what advice the Government have with regard to it?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I have checked the Concise Oxford Dictionary. The definition of a ladette is a young woman who behaves in a boisterously assertive or crude manner and engages in heavy drinking sessions. That is not to be confused with a "chapess", of whom there are rather more in your Lordships' House.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what research is being carried out to determine why alcohol affects women's livers more than men's?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I held a meeting with the Director of Research at the Department of Health this morning and asked him that question. Apparently, it is due to metabolism, which means that women have less water and more fat.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister join me in welcoming the establishment of the National Treatment Agency, which assists those suffering from drug addiction to recover? Can he say whether the Government are prepared to extend the activities of that agency to cover alcoholism, as they indicated in the past they might? If so, when is that likely to happen?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I thank my noble friend. He is right to pay tribute to the potential of the National Treatment Agency. The question of whether its remit should be extended to alcoholism is still under consideration. I cannot give him a date as to when such a decision might be made.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the dangers of alcohol do not apply to older people, such as Members of your Lordships' House?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am advised that studies have shown that frequent drinking of a small amount of alcohol, but not more than one to two units per day, can offer protection from heart disease to men aged 40 and over and to post-menopausal women. I would say that the longevity of Members of your Lordships' House pays testimony to the healthy properties of House of Lord's claret.

Lord Turnberg

My Lords, I am sorry to spoil the festive spirit, but is my noble friend the Minister aware that government spending on preventive measures against alcoholism represents only one-twentieth or less of the amount spent on preventing drug addiction? Does he not think that the Government should redress the balance?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. The programmes to which he refers have come about as a result of central programmes being developed and centrally funded. Historically, alcohol prevention services have been funded at local level. The department does not hold figures to show how much money is being spent on that. I have no doubt that we shall have to return to the issue of funding as part of developing a national strategy. As part of the development of the health service and health improvement programmes it is open to local health authorities, together with primary care trusts, to look to see whether the development of prevention programmes might be a charge on their own budgets.