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Britain mulls offering Nalmefene to curb nation's drinking problem

11/25/2014 11:00 EST | Updated 01/25/2015 05:59 EST
Britain may be turning to pills for help in what would be the most drastic measure yet in the effort to curb this country’s significant drinking problem.

The drug, called Nalmefene (marketed as Selincro) simply takes the fun out of drinking by blocking the area in the brain that registers pleasure derived from it. If dispensed nationally, proponents believe it could save hundreds of lives a year under a proposed, nationally-funded scheme that critics counter would unnecessarily "medicate the middle class."

After the decision tomorrow, hundreds of thousands of people would qualify for the handout — one pill a day — that targets not the worst alcoholics, but those who drink enough to risk serious health consequences.

Those include women who drink the equivalent of half a bottle of wine a day, and men who drink in excess of three or four pints of beer each day.

And for those people among them who would like to cut back, there is a "frightening lack of provision out there," says Dr. David Collier, a proponent of the plan who conducted a clinical trial involving 31 patients on the drug at the William Harvey Research Institute of the Barts Queen Mary University.

Trials suggest Nalmefene can reduce the number of "heavy drinking days and total alcohol consumed by more than half," according to the National Health System (NHS).

In an interview, Collier said the idea is to provide the drug in conjunction with basic counselling, and he admits not everyone who qualifies for the drug will need to take it.

In an interview, Collier said the drug will be administered only with counselling, and that in many cases the counselling alone will be enough — meaning not everyone who qualifies for the drug will need to take it.

But many insist Britain needs something far stiffer than its current policy of advocating abstinence to tackle a problem that’s bad, and growing worse.

'Epidemic' of alcohol-related deaths

According to one NHS count, more than a quarter of the population "consume alcohol in a way that is potentially or actually harmful to their health or wellbeing."

The U.K.’s Faculty of Public Health believes there is a growing "epidemic" of alcohol-related deaths. It also says more than 2.5 million children live with parents who "drink hazardously."

Part of the problem, says the faculty, is alcohol’s affordability. In a manifesto released ahead of the upcoming election, it advocates setting national minimum pricing for alcohol. That alone "would save over 3,000 lives every year, reduce chronic illnesses by as much as 41,000, and cut violent crime by 11,000."

The faculty believes the cost of providing the drug nationally— at £3 a pill, or just over $5 CDN — also outweighs the benefits.

Dr. John Middleton, vice president for health policy at the faculty, said Nalmefene can only be one tool in a range of them necessary to fight the problem.

"The level of harms that are being talked about" could be dealt with through setting minimum prices, reducing advertising for alcohol and better policing of alcohol licensing, he said in an interview.

"The middle class is being medicated instead of going through a counselling process and simply being helped to stop their drinking at harmful levels."

But medication may just be what some people need, and should not be dismissed out of hand as the "lazy approach" says Joanna Duyvenvoorde, 44, once an extremely heavy drinker who has been sober now for more than a year thanks to a drug similar to Nalmefene.

Duyvenvoorde was so determined to quit drinking she tried every method available: including Alcoholics Anonymous, but nothing worked.

When she finally learned there was a drug, she travelled all the way to a clinic in Scotland just to get a prescription.

"I don’t think it’s lazy at all," she says about the proposed NHS plan. "Unfortunately in the nation, we’ve had fifty years of ‘this is the only way to do it’ and that isn’t the case now."

"Medical science moves forward and I think we should embrace medical science moving forward."

She says her life has been transformed, and hopes the NHS moves forward with the proposal so others might have the same experience.

"I just want to shout it from the rooftops because it’s given me my life back."

Nalmefene is made by Lundbeck, a publicly-traded Danish company which just last week made new shares available for purchase. A day later, its stock rose by 88 cents.

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