As concerns over the UK's drinking culture grow, Simon Burgess looks at how brokers can help clients get the right health cover for their lifestyle

The UK's drinking culture has taken up permanent residence on the front pages in recent months, with Charles Kennedy's resignation, arguments over licensing laws and George Best's passing both generating huge amounts of coverage.

Alcohol and its consumption is a way of life in the UK and is ingrained into the very fabric of both our professional and social lives. The relationship between the UK's drinkers and their favourite tipple is very much all or nothing and the health implications are well documented. What is not so keenly understood is the impact drinking can have on our finances - other than the size of the bar bill.

Health insurance policies have long been the financial safety net above which we operate, but how well do they cater for the heavy drinker?

Indeed, how well does the average drinker understand the impact his habit could have on his insurances and their ability to provide for him and his dependents in times of need?

A large part of the problem is getting people to quantify exactly what they drink. The recommended intake may be 21 units a week, 15 for women, but exactly what does that comprise? An average pint of bitter equates to around two units but for those drinking premium lagers, three is nearer the mark. Those not appreciating the difference can easily underestimate their intake by a third.

Critical illness and income protection insurers require in the main policy holders to state their weekly alcoholic intake.

Although the unit scale is very rudimentary, it is how they operate. This immediately seems slightly farcical when one considers the health implications drinking can have, and the more complex formulas and algorithms used in other parts of their operations.

Surely a more informed picture could be ascertained through better and more varied

questioning about policyholders' drinking habits? Information could also feature more prominently in documentation, ensuring that more accurate calculations could be made.

While this may seem intrusive and over the top, the bottom line is that policies will not pay out where non disclosure is concerned and problems may arise in instances where accident, injury or illness is deemed to be self inflicted through alcoholic consumption.

When the insurer turns down those in this situation, the wrangling over detail will not seem quite so petty.

For those with critical illness or income protection policies, non-disclosure poses problems. Whether non-disclosure is intentional or inadvertent, the result is likely to be the same. Critical illness is notoriously specific over the definitions it uses and the exclusions it carries. For the long-term drinker, signs will often appear of poor health long before the actual results manifest themselves in a full blown condition. An individual may have experienced liver problems or high blood pressure as a result of their drinking and if this remains secret when the policy is agreed and then develops into something more sinister, as is often the case, then insurers will again be reluctant to pay out.

The problem facing brokers is threefold. First they have to broach the subject of a client's drinking habits which many will find embarrassing. Certainly it is not an area they will wish to dwell on but the question must be asked and the details appropriately recorded for future reference. Thereafter comes the problem of inflated premiums and the struggle to find cover. No one wants to present clients with monstrous premiums or be unable to arrange cover and so many may feel it is easier to skirt over issues relating to alcohol or brush them to the side if they crop up. In the long term it is not an option.

Finally, and for those who have not made their clients aware about the exclusions relating to heavy drinking or the very real problems associated with non disclosure, there is the threat that, should a policy not pay out, they will be held liable by clients for not informing them.

To date there is no history of this happening but, in a regulated environment where consumers are increasingly aware of their rights and the avenues of complaint and recompense open to them, it is a threat brokers should be nipping in the bud through their own diligence of process.

For their own part, lenders must also examine their attitude to insuring drinkers as consumption levels continue to grow. For those who do drink heavily they must be made aware of the duty that lies with them to disclose this accurately, and they must be given the information to do so effectively. For those who seldom drink, or abstain totally, more attractive policies and premiums should be made more readily available.IT