Good health has become ever more important for all of us since the COVID-19 pandemic began. But in the United Kingdom (UK) people’s health is increasingly at risk due to the products and practices of the alcohol industry.
In 2020, the UK reported a 19% increase in alcohol-specific deaths, meaning record high in alcohol deaths.
This is the highest increase in alcohol deaths since the records began according to the the Office for National Statistics. It translates to 8,974 people who died from alcohol specific causes registered in the 12 month period. An increase from the 7,565 deaths in 2019 and the highest year-on-year increase since the data series began in 2001. Deaths caused by alcohol products are largely preventable through proven alcohol policy solutions. It means that thousands of people could have been saved if proper alcohol policy protections were in place in the UK.
UK’s heavy alcohol burden
Since this figure only captures alcohol-specific deaths, the actual death toll due to the products and practices of the alcohol industry in the UK is much higher.
According to findings by Public Health England (PHE):
- In England, the number of people consuming more than 14 units a week increased after the first national lockdown and has remained at similar levels since the increase.
- As on-premise alcohol reduced with the closure of pubs and bars, at home alcohol use increased rapidly, with off-licence sales of beer rising 31% and spirits 26%, compared with 2019.
- Close to eight out of 10 deaths were due to alcoholic liver disease.
- Usually this disease takes over a decade or more to develop, but recently most deaths occur as a result of acute-on-chronic liver failure owing to recent alcohol intake.
- The threat of liver disease had been growing before the pandemic. For example, liver mortality rates in England increased 43% between 2001 and 2019, to the extent that liver disease became the second leading disease causing premature death among people of working age, according to PHE.
The time of the pandemic was challenging for many. Job loss or pay cuts, added child care and elder care responsibilities on top of the anxiety and stress of living through a pandemic worsened people’s mental health.
The aggressive alcohol marketing by the industry to use alcohol as a coping mechanism worsened the situation leading people to consume more alcohol and for reasons that make them more susceptible to develop alcohol use disorder and addiction.
Scotland and Northern Ireland have the highest rates of alcohol deaths, but the fastest rises were in Wales and England.
Scotland implemented minimum unit pricing (MUP) in 2018 which could be the reason why the rise in alcohol deaths has slowed down. Communities and civil society in Scotland have been calling to increase the MUP level from the current 50 pence to at least 65 pence per unit to adjust to inflation and reap far better results from the policy.
Consistent with previous years, nearly twice as many men have died due to alcohol products in the UK compared to women.
The harm caused by alcohol products goes beyond the needless loss of life in Britain. Many more suffer from mental and physical health problems. It also worsens inequality. Poorer communities suffer far more due to alcohol harm than others in the country.
The harm caused by alcohol goes beyond this unacceptable, avoidable loss of life,” said Dr. Richard Piper, chief executive of the charity Alcohol Change UK, as per The Guardian.
“Millions more suffer from worsened mental and physical health every day as a result of [alcohol harm].”
Dr. Richard Piper, chief executive, Alcohol Change UK
“[We] fail to understand their complacency on this other drug of dependence, alcohol,” said Sir Ian Gilmore, the chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, as per The Guardian.
Our poorest communities suffer most from alcohol harm, and so if our prime minister is serious about ‘levelling up’ he must back the robust plans for drugs with an alcohol strategy that seeks to turn this tragic trend around.”
Sir Ian Gilmore, chair, Alcohol Health Alliance
The UK government needs to take urgent action to reduce the alcohol burden in the country. In this regard, Alcohol Change UK has been calling on the government to implement minimum unit pricing policy in England, like in Scotland and Wales.
Unless action is taken now, we will see that graph of deaths rise further and further,” said Professor Stephen Ryder a consultant at Nottingham University Hospital, as per Channel 4 News.
Professor Stephen Ryder, consultant, Nottingham University Hospital
Professor Ryder says that there is no recognition by the UK government that was commensurate with the scale of the alcohol problem in the country. Vanessa Hebditch, director of policy at the British Liver Trust agrees with professor Ryder.
This must serve as a wake-up call to the government that the UK urgently needs a joined-up plan to address the liver disease crisis as the UK recovers from Covid. They also need to tackle the affordability and acceptability of alcohol in our society,” said Vanessa Hebditch, director of policy at the British Liver Trust, as per Channel 4 News.
Vanessa Hebditch, director of policy, British Liver Trust
Political will only to help Big Alcohol, not the people
Certainly the UK government appears to be ignoring the alcohol burden since they chose to freeze alcohol taxes in the new Budget, canceling a planned alcohol tax increase.
The high availability of cheap alcohol is the main culprit for the skyrocketing alcohol deaths in the country. And the alcohol tax cuts and duty freezes by the UK government favor Big Alcohol and compound the problem further.
According to a recent report, the alcohol tax cuts since 2012 took the lives of 2000 people, caused 61,000 avoidable hospital admissions and fueled 111,000 alcohol-related crime cases.
Civil society has spoken out against the decision, highlighting the massive burden on UK society caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry, the deepening of inequalities and the loss of £3 billion in revenue – resources that are desperately needed for COVID-19 recovery.
Unless urgent action is taken to curb the alcohol problem in the UK, it will further exacerbate the health problems caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
The Guardian: “Britain’s drinking deaths rose at record rate in pandemic“