It's pretty easy to discern when a Government Department is on the ropes. They tend to fire back at dissenters a barrage of statistics. 'We're spending X'. 'We have Y number of programmes'. 'It was worse under the last lot because they only managed Z'. And so it was yesterday when the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) challenged the Department of Health about its poor, long-standing record of failing to get addicts clean.
Rather than deal with our central point - that full recovery from drug and alcohol addiction remains a preserve of the wealthy - defensive health officials shot back with the overall level of spending the Coalition has committed to for the improvement of public health. That public health investment is welcome but they know as well as we do that addiction treatment accounts for only 10 per cent of the £5.4 billion they hailed yesterday - and even that is likely to be cut be councils. Having ignored our main argument it was then no surprise that they chose to dismiss our solutions. For a Government so committed to abstinence-based treatment in 2010 this, I'm sorry to say, was not good enough.
Let us deal with relevant facts: liver disease is the only one of the five big killers to be on the rise; 150,000 heroin addicts are dumped on the state-supplied substitute drug methadone - 50,000 for more than four years; alcohol-related deaths are increasing and related hospital admissions have doubled in a decade; more than half of councils cut the use of residential rehab last year; only 11 per cent of people who left treatment last year were in 'recovery' (and even that definition is dodgy) whilst drugs cost society £15 billion a year and alcohol more than £20 billion.
For these reasons and others - including shocking statistics that show we have the worst levels of heroin addiction, lifetime cocaine use and legal high use amongst young people in Europe, things need to change fast.
Our report Ambitious for Recovery - compiled by experts, treatment providers and former addicts - makes a number of suggestions. Amongst the most important are calls for new powers to close head shops selling 'legal highs' based on rapid success for the same moves in Ireland, changes within hospitals to screen for addiction problems so we can identify people who need help much more quickly, and reforms to the welfare system (first proposed by Gordon Brown in 2009) to require long-term unemployed addicts on benefits to seek help or face a reduction in support. We also called for welfare cards for the most chaotic and resistant addicts so their families can be surer of money going on essentials like food and clothes. As many as 100,000 addicts rely on benefits but are not in treatment so these reforms would be firm but fair.
The most controversial recommendation though was that a new Government should introduce a 'treatment tax' next year. By adding a penny to each unit sold in off licenses and supermarkets by 2020 (pubs, clubs and restaurants would be exempt) ministers could raise more than a billion pounds to develop and then utilise the most effective form of treatment: residential rehab and other forms of abstinence-based treatment. We estimate in a decade, the system could be scaled so that anyone entering treatment, no matter their income, can be offered the best form of rehabilitation. It is not OK that people have to spend thousands to get clean or rely on the postcode lottery of our poor treatment system. Paying a little more for alcohol could change that.
All too often election year politics ends up as a tit for tat race to polling day. Committing to a Treatment Tax may not attract many new voters but it would be right thing to do for the hundreds of thousands of people, and their families, cut adrift by the current failures.