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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
February 2, 2010



It’s poverty, stupid – why people are dying of drink

It’s the 30th anniversary this year of the Black Report*. Commissioned by the Labour government to explore how inequality impacts on health, it didn’t come out until the Tories had got in, and Thatcher’s government promptly binned it.

The Black Report made the mistake of revealing the extent to which health and mortality are determined by how much money you’ve got. Thirty years later we haven’t done much about it, with the latest figures, released last week, showing that the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. The wealthiest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest 10%.

Also last week, the government produced two reports, one showing that alcohol-related deaths continue to rise , the other showing patterns of (overall declining) alcohol consumption. 

The latter confirms that wealthier people, on average, drink more than poorer people. Yet past studies have made it clear that the poorer you are the more likely you are to die of drink.

For example, Alcohol Statistics Scotland 2009 says that people living in the most deprived areas are six times more likely to wind up in hospital with an alcohol problem than those living in the poshest parts. And the poorest 40 percent of the population are five times more likely to die an alcohol-related death than the richest 40 percent.

Our friends at the Institute of Alcohol Studies (which, I hasten to point out, is ‘not a temperance organisation’) recently homed in on Scotland as somewhere with a big alcohol problem. It produced an interesting table showing that the Shettleston area of Glasgow tops the alcohol-related death charts with nearly five times as many of them as the UK average.

Shettleston has another claim to fame. It’s the poorest constituency in Britain (followed by Glasgow Maryhill which happens to be second in the IAS chart).

If the Beatles had sung When I’m 64 in Shettleston they would have had to change it to If I’m 64 – average life expectancy for a man there isn’t quite that good.

The Guardian visited Shettleston in 2004 and spoke to 64-year-old Joseph Geoghan.

“What else is there here?” he said. “There’s no work. What do we have? The drink and the smoking.”

And that was in boomtime Britain. Since then we’ve had a recession and now we’ve got the recovery to look forward to – which is going to make it even worse for people like Joseph. Economic recovery for capitalism means cuts and unemployment for the poor. And that will mean more people dying of drink.

They will continue to blame the booze, of course. Poverty is an expensive problem to put right.

*A tweet from my Twitter friend Ian Wardle – who hosts the excellent Film Exchange on Alcohol & Drugs website – tipped me off about this (retweeting @hiablog - sorry, but must stick to twittequette). You can find the complete Black Report, plus notes from a conference to mark its 25th anniversary, on the Socialist Health Association website.

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