A NORTH-EAST academic with a worldwide reputation in her field has criticised the Government for failing to back a cheap and effective method of curbing heavy drinking.

The UK is facing a deepening crisis over the availability of cheap booze but according to Professor Eileen Kaner of Newcastle University, the Government is missing a golden opportunity to start turning the tide.

It has been estimated that damage caused by drinking costs the country about £25bn every year in terms of costs to the NHS, the criminal justice system and the economy.

One in five people are drinking at dangerous levels and alcohol-related liver disease is claiming ever increasing numbers of young lives.

But Prof Kaner said past and present Governments had failed to back an inexpensive and successful form of counselling - called Brief Intervention - which has an impressive track record in helping people curb their drinking.

Last night the professor of public health research's call for more action to help people to reduce harmful levels of drinking was backed by the national charity Alcohol Concern.

Dan Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said the failure to roll out the Brief Intervention programme across the UK was a tremendous indictment of the failed policies of this Government and the last Government.

Prof Kaner said there was overwhelming evidence from about 40 randomised scientific trials which show that Brief Intervention does help people cut down on their drinking.

Last year Prof Kaner chaired a committee set up by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence which endorsed Brief Interventions as a way forward to help curb heavy drinking.

But despite this weight of evidence the Government has so far only funded a limited pilot involving a small number of family doctors interested in using this approach to patient counselling.

"At the moment I have seen very little evidence of a systematic or high level of delivery of Brief Interventions," said Prof Kaner.

She said she feared the controversial and major health reforms announced by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley had proved to be distraction for GPs who might otherwise join the scheme.

Prof Kaner warned: "If we do nothing about excessive drinking it will be very costly in many ways.

"It has also been estimated that for every pound you spend on alcohol intervention you save 5."

Prof Kaner believes there is also scope to use Brief Interventions across the entire public sector.

"It is not just the NHS, I would say that social workers, teachers, pharmacists and those in the criminal justice system could all use this approach," she added.

She said a recent survey of GP opinions carried out by Newcastle University researchers suggested many felt that they were the only ones being asked to do something about heavy drinking.

"Some doctors feel like the little boy with their finger in the dyke," she added.

"GPs feel they are expected to tackle heavy drnking while measures in society as a whole appear to be encouraging heavy drinking."

Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said: "The truth is if you want to give up smoking there is an awful lot of support out there but we have got nothing like that in relation to alcohol abuse.

"This country is very good at encouraging people to drink lots of alcohol and very poor at encouraging people to cut down on their drinking."

Mr Shenker said it was no surprise that England has seen a 24 per cent increase in people dependent on alcohol in the last five years, increasing from 1.1 million to 1.6 million.

"The crisis is deepening and it is getting far worse," said Mr Shenker.

"What Governments have not been doing in recent years is providing people with the right information and advice and support so they can cut down on their drinking.

"When it comes to wanting to speak to someone about their drink problems people will be hard pressed to find someone to talk to.

"This lack of early intervention was allowing people to drink themselves into a state of dependence.

Then it is too late," he added.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "The Department is currently funding a research project into brief interventions.

"There is good evidence that these interventions by GPs and others are effective in reducing alcohol consumption and harm.

"We look forward to receiving the project's findings shortly and will respond in due course."