A serious, long standing threat to the health of citizens in England and Wales is harm caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry. Latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) report that in 2020 there were 7,423 alcohol-specific deaths. This is a rise of 19.6% from the 2019 deaths and the highest recorded over two decades since the data series began in 2001.

Protecting the health of citizens is a cornerstone of good governance. And amidst the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis, good health, devoid of disease, and well-being with high quality of life has become ever more important for people.

However, a serious, long standing threat to the health and well-being of people in England and Wales is harm caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry. Latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) indicate that in 2020 there were 7,423 alcohol-specific deaths. This is a rise of 19.6% from the 2019 death rate and the highest recorded over two decades since the data series began in 2001.

Dramatic increase in alcohol deaths in England and Wales from 2019 to 2020
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) report that in 2020 there were 7,423 alcohol-specific deaths. This is a rise of 19.6% from the 2019 deaths and the highest recorded in the last 20 years.

Writer, James Fox Jeffries puts this number into perspective.

Picture 7,423 people marching past your house though, and it’s an almost untenable amount of citizens. Picture all their friends, families, and others negatively affected by those bereavements, and suddenly you’re watching a rather sizeable and grim parade, wrote James Fox Jeffries, writer, as per medium.

James Fox Jeffries, writer

Delving deeper into the ONS data shows:

  • There were 1,963 alcohol-specific deaths registered in Quarter 4 (October to December) of 2020, and with an age-standardised rate of 13.6 deaths per 100,000 people, this was the highest rate for any quarter in almost two decades.
  • Around 80% of those deaths were from alcoholic liver disease, 10% from mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol use and 6% from accidental poisoning by exposure to alcohol.
  • In England, men living in the most deprived areas were four times more likely to die from alcohol than men living in the most affluent areas.

COVID-19 and rising alcohol harm and alcohol industry behavior

As Movendi International has reported previously, COVID-19 has made matters worse for England and Wales

According to data from the ongoing COVID-19 Social Study by University College London (UCL), over one third (34.4%) of people reported a change in their alcohol use during COVID-19 in 2020. Out of those nearly half (49.1%) say they are currently having more alcohol compared to March/April 2020.

The data suggest that people are using alcohol to cope with increased and ongoing stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic and its consequences.

Meanwhile special concern arose about older adults consuming more alcohol. A recent study which looked into 366 patients aged 55 to 74 years who had been referred to NHS mental health services found dependent alcohol use increased from 19% before lockdown to 28% after lockdown.

Older adult’s high alcohol consumption is specifically concerning since the increased sensitivity to alcohol in old age combined with the ageing process can increase risk of disease and accidents. It is now more than ever necessary during the pandemic to have a healthy ageing population, since risk of complications from coronavirus is higher with other chronic conditions and because healthcare capacity is limited.

Big Alcohol cashing in on crisis

The alcohol industry has been cashing in on the coronavirus public health crisis. Big Alcohol has turned COVID-19 into the world’s largest marketing campaign. In the UK,  on-demand alcohol delivery was expanded during the pandemic, thus increasing alcohol availability and fueling alcohol problems. Major concerns around on-demand alcohol delivery are the companies’ inability to protect minors through effective age verification and to protect people who are already intoxicated through avoiding selling and delivering more alcohol to them.

Alcohol policies and treatment services are not enough

Current alcohol policies in England are failing to protect the English people from harm. Meanwhile treatment services are underfunded and have taken an even bigger hit during the pandemic.

Since England does not have a minimum unit price (MUP) on alcohol products like Scotland and Wales, the alcohol industry sells their products at very cheap prices to increase consumption and private profits at the cost of the health of communities and society.

For example, Iceni an addiction charity in Ipswich has seen a large rise in people and families with alcohol problems seeking their help. So much so that they just cannot keep up with the demand.

We have 140 families on our books, with around 30 to 40 families that we’ve been unable to provide a service for and who are still on our wait list,” said Brian Tobin, CEO of Iceni, as per Ipswich Star.

Brian Tobin, CEO of Iceni

Mr. Tobin believes the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on alcohol problems will be felt for a generation to come.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has called for more funding for alcohol and other drug treatment services in England to support people to recover from alcohol problems.

Addiction services must be given the resources they need to tackle this public health crisis,” said Professor Julia Sinclair, chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, as per BBC.

Professor Julia Sinclair, chair, addictions faculty, Royal College of Psychiatrists

The British Liver Trust has also called for more alcohol support teams across the UK.

Urgent action needed

The Commission on Alcohol Harm released their report on alcohol harm in the UK and what needs to be done to tackle the problem. The report was informed by over 140 submissions of written evidence from organizations and individuals, of which around 40 were from people with direct lived experience of alcohol harm.

The Commission makes the following recommendations in their report:

  1. The Government should develop a new alcohol strategy with targeted measures to support families and protect children from harm, including alcohol-fuelled violence.
  2. The strategy should be “science-led” and follow the World Health Organisation’s evidence-based recommendations on reducing the use of alcohol.
  3. The strategy should consider the affordability of alcohol, and the introduction of minimum unit pricing (MUP) in England, as well as restrictions on advertising and marketing such as ending sports sponsorship and better information for consumers.
  4. Action to challenge alcohol’s position in UK culture, encouraging conversations about alcohol use and for people to be open about the effects of alcohol on their health and those around them.

These recommendations are supported by the community, public health advocates and civil society.

The future impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on addiction and mental health makes action now all the more critical, said Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, as per their website.

If the UK Government wants to demonstrate its commitment to turning this tragic trend around, it must urgently introduce an alcohol strategy which seeks to address health inequalities and stop the sale of cheap, strong alcohol that is so harmful to health. The Government also needs to improve access to treatment for those who need it. We cannot afford to ignore the growing alcohol harm crisis – lives depend on action being taken now.”

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance

More lives will be needlessly lost to addiction unless the government acts now and commits to substantial investment in public health, including adult addiction services, in the spending review, said Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, as per The Guardian.

Dr Adrian James, President, Royal College of Psychiatrists


itv: “Alcohol-related deaths in 2020 highest since records began

Alcohol Health Alliance: “AHA responds to highest alcohol death figures for England and Wales in 20 years

BBC: “Alcohol deaths highest for 20 years in England and Wales

Medium: “UK Alcohol-Related Deaths Reach a 20 Year High. Why? Because British Life is Saturated with Booze

Ipswich Star: “Ipswich addiction charity warns worst is yet to come as alcohol deaths rise

Daily Mail: “Baby boomer addiction to booze rose during lockdown… and even more people are having their first drink in the morning, study suggests