Influencing alcohol policy across England

In England councils decide how alcohol policy will be implemented in their local areas, which provides councils with the opportunity to tailor its approach to suit local needs. As a result, this has led to variations in how alcohol policy is put in to practice across the country.

In 2013, the School funded the first piece of research to explore the impact of alcohol policies in local areas across the country on public health. The aim of the research was to assess if there was a link between a council’s approach to alcohol licensing and its impact on the community.

In England it is estimated that alcohol misuse costs the National Health Service £3.5 billion pounds each year, with a further cost of £11 billion per year due to alcohol-related crime and £7.3 billion in lost productivity.  Although overall alcohol consumptions has fallen by around 18% since 2004, 2.5 million people drink more than the weekly limit on their heaviest drinking days.

Councils must be consulted on all alcohol licensing applications and can implement a number of measures to help combat the negative effects of alcohol consumption on the community, such as cumulative impact zones (CIZs), early morning restrictions and late night levies. CIZs are used to oversee areas where additional alcohol outlets could affect crime, disorder and public safety, cause a public nuisance or expose children to harm.

Researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Sheffield, and The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine assessed the alcohol licensing policies and responses to alcohol licensing applications made to all councils between 2007-8 and 2011-12.

The researchers developed a ‘cumulative licensing intensity score’, based on whether councils used CIZs and whether any applications for new premises were declined. Based on these scores councils were ranked into four categories: no activity; low; medium; and high.  More than a third of councils were ranked as medium or high (35%); 43% had no activity and 21% of councils were considered to have low levels of activity.

The researchers found councils with tighter alcohol licensing policies had a higher decline in alcohol-related hospital admissions as well as in alcohol related crimes over the study period.

Councils who scored highly saw drink related hospital admissions fall by 2% every year or around eight fewer drink-related admissions per 100,000 of the population in 2015. In areas with a medium score, drink related hospital admissions fell by an average of 0.6% per year, compared to 0.03% in those without an active alcohol policy between 2009 and 2015.

The researchers further found that up until 2013, councils with stricter licensing policies saw violent crimes, sexual crimes and public order offences decline by 4-6%, compared to around 3% in areas without alcohol licensing policies in place. After 2013 alcohol related crime increased across all areas regardless of licensing policies.

This influential piece of research helped to enhance the understanding of the effectiveness of licensing policies with respect to local crime and adverse health effects, thereby providing the evidence to local policymakers to shape local policy and national guidelines.

Dr Frank De Vocht, Lead Researcher and Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology and Public Health Research at the University of Bristol said: “This research was the first study to provide policy makers with measurable evidence that the way they shaped their alcohol licensing policies can directly benefit or harm public health and the community at large.