Prevention of avoidable illness is rightly an important focus in the NHS Long Term Plan, which was launched this month. As demand for NHS services continues to grow exponentially, improving the prevention of avoidable illnesses has the potential to yield significant savings.

The NHS in England spends more than £15.5 billion per annum treating illness which directly result from alcohol and tobacco consumption, obesity, hypertension, falls, and unhealthy levels of physical activity. Most of this treatment is avoidable and some of the greatest improvements in health outcomes have resulted from addressing the causes of diseases – whether health behaviours, socioeconomic factors, clinical care or the built environment – rather than just treating their consequences.

So while the NHS focus has been renewed on this important area with the publication of the Long Term Plan, it’s actually not a new approach at all.

Consider the current trend for artisan gin. Back in 1689, William of Orange actually started the first gin craze when he reduced taxes on spirit production for the health of the Nation’s finances. This led to the destructive love for gin experienced predominantly by Londoners, with an estimated 7,000 gin shops in business in 1730, and historical accounts of violence, addiction and social devastation. Gin was a cheap buzz which could be had for pennies.

It took a tragic event to lead to the end of the craze. In 1734 a woman strangled her two-year-old son and sold his clothes so that she could buy more gin. The resulting public outcry ensured that Parliament had to act and prevent the craze from continuing, and they did this with the passing of the 1951 Gin Act. This prohibited distillers selling to unlicensed merchants – and led to the reduction of excessive spirt drinking.   

Today we continue the work to encourage drinkers to curb their levels of alcohol consumption, which put so much strain on NHS resources. Alcohol-related harm is estimated to cost the NHS in England £3.5 billion every year. As part of new NHS prevention measures announced in the Long Term Plan, Alcohol Care Teams will be rolled out in the hospitals with the highest number of alcohol-related admissions and will support patients and their families who have issues with alcohol misuse. This could prevent 50,000 admissions and almost 250,000 bed days over five years.

By David Fluck

Medical Director at Ashford and St Peters Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust