Excessive alcohol consumption and obesity are two of the most important public health challenges facing our NHS today. There can be no doubt that obesity and alcohol misuse can cause misery to individuals and their families, and their combined costs to the NHS are an eye-watering £22billion each year.
Yet with the current media and policy focus on childhood obesity, we are in danger of overlooking a significant factor in the adult obesity crisis: alcohol.
Today I chaired a meeting of experts and Parliamentarians to consider what more could be done address these two urgent and escalating public health concerns together. Two obvious areas for improvement were clear - education and labelling.
Alcohol is rich in calories, second only to fat in energy density, and accounts for nearly 10% of the calorie intake amongst adults who drink. Yet surveys show that over 80% of people do not know or underestimate the number of calories in a large glass of wine (it's 228 calories, the same as a Cornetto ice cream) and over 60% of people did not know or underestimate the calories in a standard pint of lager (180, the same as a slice of pizza).
Worryingly, the type of fat that people put on from heavy drinking, the typical 'beer belly' (intra-abdominal fat rather than subcutaneous fat), is linked to much higher risks of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver and dementia. And for people who are obese, the impact of drinking on their liver is amplified, greatly increasing their chances of developing severe liver disease and cirrhosis.
This means there is an urgent need to educate and inform people about the impact that alcohol has on their waistline as well as their general health. People need to understand how long they will have to run to burn off that glass of wine, or how many hours they will need to put in at the gym to burn off three pints. There's a role for industry, charities, health professionals and Public Health England here, and the messages must be clear and consistent.
On labelling, a few alcohol manufacturers and retailers have recently announced that they plan to include calorie information on their products. This can only be a good thing for raising awareness and helping people to think about and understand the impact of what they drink, as well as what they eat, on their waistline. But there's a long way to go before this is commonplace and we need to see more companies taking steps to show the calorie content of their products on labels.
We know that changing behaviours takes time and that there are no magic silver bullets to solve the alcohol harm or obesity crises. However, we turned the curve on smoking and we need to have the same determination and multi-faceted approach to addressing the public health challenges associated with alcohol misuse and obesity. A far more focussed education, information and policy link between alcohol and weight gain would certainly be a step in the right direction.