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On the publication of Northern Ireland’s Preventing Harm, Empowering Recovery – Substance Use Strategy

Matt Lambert, CEO of the Portman Group – the alcohol social responsibility body and marketing regulator said:

“The Portman Group welcomes the new Strategic Framework as an important step in tackling the harm from alcohol misuse and drug use in Northern Ireland. We echo the Department of Health in highlighting positive downward trends marked by declining binge and underage drinking across Northern Ireland. We also recognise that there is much more work to be done and welcome the Framework’s proposals on those drinking at the most harmful rates in an effort to improve treatment and tackle the underlying issues highlighted by Minister Swann such as mental health, deprivation and homelessness.

“The industry has a longstanding commitment to responsibility. We continue to work in partnership with Governments and would seek to do so further with the Northern Irish Executive to help achieve the common goal of reducing alcohol misuse.”

Portman Group submits response to new Northern Ireland substance use strategy

The Portman Group has responded to the Northern Irish Government’s proposed new Substance Use strategy. As the UK alcohol industry regulator and social responsibility body, we principally addressed the alcohol harm perspective, but also sought to highlight the role that polydrug use (using one of more substance at a time) can play, especially for those drinking at the heaviest and most harmful levels.

We recognise the wider harm that illicit drug use and alcohol misuse causes to individuals, families and society at large. We know that for every person who is managing a problem, there are friends and family who will suffer with them. However, we believe that the Northern Irish Government should be proud of the progress over last decade in tackling harm. As they rightly recognise in their consultation document:

  • The moderate majority – four in five – Northern Irish adults report drinking within the lower risk CMO guidelines. This is amongst the highest in the UK[i];
  • Since 2010/11, the proportion of those drinking above 14 units a week has fallen from 25% to just 17%, down by nearly a third (32%). This splits to men – from 37% to 26%, a 30% fall; women are down a substantial 40% from 15% to 9%[ii];
  • The proportion of 11-16-year olds to have ever had an alcoholic drink has declined by 50%, from 57% in 2000 to 29% in 2016[iii];
  • There has been a 6% decline in alcohol-related hospital admissions rates in Northern Ireland over the last eight years[iv];
  • The hospital admission rate for alcohol-related causes has fallen over the last eight years, from 719 admissions per 100,000 of the population in the period 2012/13 to 2014/15 to 673 admissions per 100,000 in 2016/17 to 2018/19[v];
  • Alcohol related incidents of ‘violence against the person’ has declined from 47.1% to 33.6% (-28.6%) between 2012/13 and 2019/20 as a percentage of all recorded crime[vi];
  • The number of alcohol-related public-order offences have declined from 214 in 2012/13 to 136 in 2019/20 – a fall of 36%[vii].

That said, we recognise the continuing toll that alcohol misuse takes on hospital admission and preventable deaths. We believe that policies targeted at the heaviest drinkers, who are most likely to be admitted multiple times for alcohol-related issues and place a strain on services, would have the most appreciable impact on reducing harm.

Furthermore, unlike illicit drug use, and taking into account the moderate majority of drinkers in Northern Ireland, we believe the best approach to tackling alcohol-related harm are measures focused on reducing harmful alcohol use than alcohol consumption per se.

Our response therefore supports those measures proposed by the Northern Irish Government targeted at those drinking at the heaviest and most harmful rates and which seek to address the complexities underlying their drinking.

These include proposals seeking to increase the accessibility and effectiveness of alcohol and drug services and taking a joined-up approach across health, community, homeless and mental health services.

You can read our response in full here:

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[i] Health Survey for NI, December 2020

[ii] Health Survey Northern Ireland, December 2020

[iii] NI Young Persons Behaviour & Attitudes Survey, September 2020

[iv] NI Department of Health, March 2020

[v] NI Department of Health, March 2020

[vi] PSNI, November 2020

[vii] PSNI, November 2020