The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of prioritizing public health. Unfortunately, during the pandemic England has seen a sharp rise in alcoholic liver disease deaths.
Usually, chronic conditions such as alcoholic liver disease takes years to develop resulting in deaths after about a decade. But during the pandemic the changing alcohol use patterns at home, and the practices of the alcohol industry to drive higher consumption have led to faster progressing liver conditions resulting in more deaths.
According to Public Health England there was a 20.8% increase in alcoholic liver disease deaths in 2020 compared to 2019. This is about seven times more than the increase of 2.9% from 2018 to 2019. The reason for the sudden sharp increase becomes clear when viewed side by side with the increased alcohol harm in England during the pandemic.
- Despite on-premise alcohol outlets such as clubs and bars being closed for 31 weeks due to COVID-19, alcohol sales did not vary much in 2020. This indicates people were having more alcohol at home.
- Comparing March 2020 and March 2021, there was a 58.6% increase of people having alcohol at high-risk levels (50 units a week for men, 35 units a week for women).
- People consuming the heaviest amount of alcohol bought 5.3 million more liters of alcohol in 2020 compared to 2019. This is a 14.3% increase.
Overall, shops and supermarkets in England sold 12.6 million more liters of alcohol in 2020 compared to 2019. This is a 24.4% increase. The more alcohol were sold and consumed by people the more deaths occurred in 2020. Overall, alcohol-specific deaths increased by 20% in 2020 (from 5,819 in 2019 to 6,983). Alcoholic liver disease accounted for just over 80.3% of all deaths in 2020.
Alcoholic liver death rate is not only higher in 2020 but the inequality in the death rate has widened. The North East had the biggest increase in death rate out of all regions, 79.7% higher than the baseline rate in 2018 and 2019 combined. Moreover, 33% of all alcohol-specific deaths occurred in the most deprived 20% of the population.
These findings are very concerning but, sadly, they mirror what we have been hearing on our helpline throughout the pandemic. Stress, loneliness and the lack of access to alcohol support services have resulted in many people [having] more alcohol and putting their livers at risk. Alarmingly, these new statistics show that those who come from the most deprived areas of the country are also disproportionately affected,” said Pamela Healy OBE, Chief Executive of the British Liver Trust, as per GOV.UK.
Pamela Healy OBE, Chief Executive, The British Liver Trust
As Movendi International previously reported, alcohol specific deaths in England and Wales hit a 20 year record high in 2020 according to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The alcohol industry and alcohol policies in England
Alcohol and other drug treatment services in England have faced major cuts to funding since 2012.
- A research conducted by King’s College scientists, published in BMJ found, more than £100 million have been cut since services in England were reorganized in 2012.
- On average, alcohol and other drug services in England had lost approximately 30% of their budgets since 2013-14, when they were handed over to local authority control.
- The Local Government Association (LGA) has said that, public health grants, which, among other things, fund community alcohol and other drugs services, have been reduced by £700 million in real terms since 2015-16.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists have called on the government to increase funding for these much needed services.
At a population level, current alcohol policies in England are failing to protect the English people from harm. 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. Thus, the industry increases private profits at the cost of the health of communities and society.
Alcohol has become more available and affordable in England over the years. During the pandemic alcohol was granted essential status despite the lethal interaction alcohol has with COVID-19. This is no coincidence since the alcohol industry lobby is well-funded and adept at influencing public health policy in their favor.
Liver disease is currently the second leading cause of premature death in people of working age and this is only set to get worse if the COVID-19 pandemic results in a long-term increase in [alcohol use],” said Rosanna O’Connor, Director of Drugs, Alcohol, Tobacco and Justice at PHE, as per GOV.UK.
Tackling [alcohol harm] must be an essential part of the COVID-19 recovery plan.”
Rosanna O’Connor, Director of Drugs, Alcohol, Tobacco and Justice at PHE
It is becoming increasingly clear and urgent that alcohol policies in England need to be improved to protect the English people, specifically the most vulnerable from the products and practices of the alcohol industry. A MUP policy as adopted and championed by neighboring Scotland and Wales would be a promising start for England.
Independent: “Alcohol-related deaths are soaring – British drinking is out of control”