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Major tobacco and alcohol conference in North East

PUBLIC health experts will gather in the North East this week to discuss two of the country's biggest public health problems – tobacco and alcohol – which collectively cost the nation billions of pounds through death, disease, social care and policing.


Tobacco and alcohol as industrial epidemics: From Global to Local, is the first national conference of its kind to be held in the region, and will be hosted jointly by Balance, the North East Alcohol Office and Fresh, the regional tobacco control office and the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies.


The conference will explore the progress made in the region over the past decade and discuss decisive action to address future challenges.  It is bringing leading international experts in public health, from as far afield as Australia, together to address what needs to be done to counter the major problems and costs to society, from smoking and alcohol consumption.


It will also look at the role the NHS can play, with the NHS Five Year Forward View in 2014 stating: "the future health of millions of children, the sustainability of the NHS, and the economic prosperity of Britain all now depend on a radical upgrade in prevention and public health."


Significant progress is being made in the North East in tackling the harms caused by alcohol and smoking, with England's biggest fall in smoking prevalence and the only place in the country to see alcohol-related hospital admissions fall in recent years.


The region has seen the largest fall in adult smoking in the country since 2005 when Fresh was set up to tackle smoking rates. Smoking prevalence has fallen from 29% of adults in 2005, to 18.7% in 2015 – the equivalent of around 189,000 fewer adult smokers. The North East also has the lowest youth smoking rates on record and has seen a corresponding fall in deaths from major smoking related diseases.


Meanwhile, the North East is the only region in the country to have seen consistent falls in alcohol-related hospital admissions – a 5% drop in the region, compared to a 5% increase in the rest of the country. Public support for evidence-based alcohol policy interventions is at an all-time high in the region, with people amongst the best informed in the country when it comes to alcohol harms. The North East has also seen the highest number of signups to Dry January.


Amanda Healy, Director of Public Health for South Tyneside Council and chair of the North East Directors of Public Health Network, said: "Public health is everyone's business but local authorities and other partners working via health and wellbeing boards deserve credit for working together to prioritise efforts to reduce the impact of alcohol and smoking on the North East – two of the biggest health issues of our times.


"Work here has captured attention around the world. By working together, the North East is leading the way and setting an example the rest of the country can follow – and as times only get tougher, it's vital this work continues."


The achievements will be highlighted as nearly 200 people from across the region and beyond come together for the conference over the next two days. Keynote speakers including Professor of Health Policy Mike Daube, from Curtin University, Australia, will set out what still needs to be done as the problems caused by alcohol and tobacco continue to reach all corners of society.


The widespread availability and promotion of alcohol at pocket money prices continues to cost the region to the tune of nearly £1 billion each year. 45% of people are still drinking at risky levels, while drinking contributes to 67,278 alcohol-related hospital admissions each year, including 300 children in the North East being admitted to hospital due to alcohol. The number of annual alcohol-related crimes stands at almost 200,000 per year.


Prof Ann McNeill, Deputy Director of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies, said: "We are delighted to be hosting this conference with Fresh and Balance as public health faces many challenges over the next few years. The joined up leadership seen in the North East has been exemplary where we are starting to now see results."


Colin Shevills, Director of Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, said: "Enough alcohol is sold for every drinker to consume well above the Chief Medical Officer's weekly guidelines and in many ways, we're just at the beginning of the journey when it comes to tackling the problems alcohol causes. When we look at what we can learn from our colleagues in tobacco, we realise that many of the issues are very similar.


"In the North East we are already ensuring people are better informed about the risks of alcohol consumption through mass media campaigns, but nationally we also need health warning labels and alcohol is too available, too affordable and too widely promoted, as tobacco once was.


"We need to challenge the alcohol industry and call for policy changes that make a real difference. We need the Government to introduce a minimum unit price so the most harmful alcohol products are no longer sold at pocket money prices."


Meanwhile, nearly 400,000 people in the North East still smoke, leading to  5,420 deaths a year, a cost of £36m for local authorities to provide social care and £37m lost to employers and the economy from days lost. Smoking leaves 34,000 families in the region trapped in poverty and costs the NHS £88m in treating five key smoking related diseases alone, including 474,000 GP appointments every year.


Ailsa Rutter, Director of Fresh, commented: "Falls in death rates from major diseases linked to smoking is just one example of where our region is improving faster than anywhere else in the country. This is making a real difference to real lives.


"Still though, every year, too many people are watching their loved ones suffer and die an early death from smoking. More questions need to be asked about the role of the industries who profit so much but cause so much ill health."


Prof Ann McNeill, Deputy Director of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies, said: "We are delighted to be hosting this conference with Fresh and Balance as public health faces many challenges over the next few years. The joined up leadership seen in the North East has been exemplary where we are starting to now see results."


The conference will be held in Newcastle over the next two days with input from Action on Smoking and Health, YouGov, world expert in tobacco control Professor Mike Daube from Australia, the Alcohol Health Alliance, Institute of Alcohol Studies, London NHS Clinical Senate, as well as experts from the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies.