Government polling before the pandemic estimated that 1.5 million English adults were engaging in heavy alcohol use. These adults were consuming 50 units of alcohol every week.
This figure has jumped to 2.5 million adults in the summer of 2021. A million more English adults are now battling alcohol addiction in the country.
The largest increase in alcohol use was seen among the age group of over 65 years followed by the 18-to-24 year olds.
- For people older than 65, alcohol use has increased by 138%. Before the start of the pandemic, just over 190,000 (3.4%) of older adults had an alcohol addiction. By the end of June 2021, this number has jumped to more than 453,000 (8.1%).
- For 18-to-24 year olds figures increased from 71,000 to 170,000.
Record alcohol deaths and record number of alcohol addiction
The new data come weeks after statistics showing England and Wales had a 20 year record high in alcohol-specific deaths. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that in 2020 there were 7,423 alcohol-specific deaths. This is a rise of 19.6% from 2019 alcohol deaths and the highest death toll recorded in the last 20 years.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on alcohol use has been devastating,” Dr. Tony Rao, a world-renowned expert on alcohol problems in older people at King’s College London, as per Daily Mail.
The latest data, taken together with the highest number of alcohol-specific deaths on record, is a stark warning for the Government.”
Dr. Tony Rao, King’s College London
Years of funding cuts to addiction services in England weakened services amidst the pandemic
The spike in addiction and alcohol-specific deaths come after years of the government slashing funding to addiction services in England. Eight out of England’s nine regions have seen a real-term reduction in funding since 2014. The government cut an estimated £162million funding for alcohol and other drug addiction services. Since then funding fell from £877million in 2013-14 to £716million in 2017-18.
Dr. Rao says the rising alcohol use among older people is possibly due to pandemic induced loneliness. The over 65 age group is vulnerable because they are most likely to be isolated from family due to COVID-19.
The pandemic has also changed people’s alcohol use behaviors. People are having alcohol more at home than before. This has led to new behavior, such as beginning to consume alcohol earlier in the day and having more alcohol in one sitting.
I have seen a steady increase in my clinic of over 65s who have become alcohol dependent, with significant consequences to their physical health, mental health and relationship health with their partners and families,” said Dr. Tony Rao, expert on alcohol problems in older people at King’s College London, as per Daily Mail.
Over 65s are more vulnerable to the dangers of alcohol, especially liver disease, stomach ulcers, pancreatitis, heart disease and brain damage.”
Dr. Tony Rao, King’s College London
It is now more than ever necessary during the pandemic to have a healthy ageing population, since risk of complications from the coronavirus is higher with other chronic conditions and because healthcare capacity is limited.
Previously, 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. The British Liver Trust has also called for more alcohol support teams across the UK. And Alcohol Change UK has called on the government to improve specialized addiction treatment services for older people.
Current alcohol policies in England fail to protect citizens
It is evident that current alcohol policies in England are not enough to protect citizens from alcohol harm.
Alcohol has become more available and affordable in England over the years. Despite the harm alcohol causes, the pressure from the alcohol industry lobby has led the UK government to cut or freeze alcohol taxes since 2012. In 2021, alcohol taxes were frozen by the government again. The alcohol taxes have failed to keep pace with inflation. For instance, the beer tax is now 21% cheaper than in 2012.
Due to the poor taxing and lack of a minimum unit pricing (MUP) in England, such as in 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.
Making matters worse, during the pandemic the UK government granted essential status for alcohol products despite the lethal interaction alcohol has with COVID-19.
However, there are solutions to tackle the problem. The Commission on Alcohol Harm in their report on alcohol harm in the UK recommend several solutions. They include:
- Developing a comprehensive scientific alcohol strategy;
- This strategy should follow World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidance on reducing alcohol harm, i.e. Best Buys, and the SAFER package; and
- The strategy should consider introducing the MUP policy in England, restrictions on marketing and advertising such as ending alcohol sports sponsorship, and labeling regulations to better inform consumers.
Daily Mail: “Nearly ONE MILLION more people in England are now addicted to alcohol as a result of Covid lockdowns, official data suggests“
philcain.com: “Record alcohol deaths follow service cuts“