A LEADING North-East alcohol campaigner has warned about the impact of Covid-19 on alcohol use and health inequalities as he steps down from his role.

Colin Shevills, director of North-East organisation Balance, is leaving the charity after 12 years.

Since helping to set up Balance in 2009, he was spearheaded a series of high profile health campaigns and campaigned for measures to reduce harm from alcohol.

Health leaders have joined him in his calls for urgent action to halt a "tsunami" of alcohol harm, which has worsened during the pandemic.

Deaths from alcohol hit a new high during the first nine months of 2020, up 16 per cent on the same months in 2019 and the biggest toll recorded since records began in 2001.

In the North-East alcohol deaths increased by 15 per cent in the first same period, mostly from alcohol-related liver disease.

Alcohol is now understood to be linked to heart disease, stroke and 7 types of cancer, while deaths linked to liver disease have risen 400 per cent in 40 years.

Alice Wiseman, director of Public Health for Gateshead and alcohol policy lead for the Association of Directors of Public Health, said: “Colin has been a champion for people in the North-East and an advocate for health, a passionate believer in the right to know about the risks of alcohol to make informed choices and to question the current status quo of profits above health.

"His work has led to the North-East achieving an international reputation for its prevention work on alcohol.

“It is clear the UK was already at crisis point with alcohol, but Covid has made this worse with millions more people drinking at risky levels and countless families affected.

“This has been driven mainly by cheap alcohol consumed at home. With more stress and anxiety, heavy drinking has tipped over into dependency. We must work even harder to reduce this harm before more lives are ruined.

“Over the last 12 years we have learned so much in the North-East through building awareness of the links between alcohol and cancer, seeing the highest support in the country for Dry January and encouraging hundreds of thousands of people to take steps to cut down.

“Talking about alcohol can at times feel difficult as it is so much a part of our everyday lives – but this also highlights the huge disparity in the way we tackle harm from alcohol and the huge concessions given to alcohol companies, favouring profit over health. We owe Colin a big debt of thanks for his tireless work and passion to improve lives affected by alcohol and reduce the burden on our emergency services.”

Mr Shevills, who steps down this week, said: “As alcohol has got cheaper, the harm to individuals and communities has got worse. Alcohol is too affordable, too heavily advertised and too available and it is a scandal that people can buy a week’s worth of alcohol for the price of a coffee.

“If the Government is serious about levelling up and reducing health inequalities we need to tackle this to reduce harm to individuals, reduce pressure on our emergency services and raise much needed money to invest in our public services.

“As a priority we need pricing policies which tackle the cheapest and strongest alcohol to bring an end to the rising burden of alcohol-harm and death. And we need greater investment in our specialist treatment services to help those who are already dependent on alcohol.

“As with Covid, most of the harm falls on the most deprived in our communities. This is particularly worrying in the North-East that, even before Covid, already suffered from the highest rates of alcohol-related death and illness in England. Introducing a new strategy and tackling the scourge of cheap alcohol would help prove that the Government are serious about tackling health inequalities.”

Dr Katherine Severi, chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies said: “Colin Shevills has had a tremendous influence on shaping national and international advocacy campaigns to tackle alcohol harm.

"He has spearheaded initiatives to combat cheap, damaging products such as white cider that has devastating effects on the lives of some of our most vulnerable.

"We must continue to build on the foundations Colin has laid and maintain calls for life saving measures such as minimum unit pricing in England.”