In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, good health has taken centre stage in everyone’s minds. But the products and practices of the alcohol industry in England and Northern Ireland are fueling a rise in the number of people with alcohol problems, endangering people’s health.
The British government Office for Health Improvement and Disparities announced results from a YouGov poll which found that, 18% of adults had high-risk alcohol use over a three months period to October 2021. Around a quarter of men and 10% women are showing signs of alcohol use disorder. This is a significant rise from pre-pandemic levels of high-risk alcohol use which was at 12%.
Meanwhile the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) reported that annual alcohol specific deaths for 2020 were the highest so far recorded at 351 deaths. This is 4.5% higher compared to 2019. Alcohol specific deaths accounted for 2% of all deaths in Northern Ireland in 2020. The most at risk from dying due to alcohol are men, people in the 45 to 54 and 55 to 64 age ranges, and people living in the most deprived areas.
In Northern Ireland,
- Almost two-thirds (66.4%) of the 351 alcohol-specific deaths were male, and just over one third (33.6%) were female.
- Alcohol-specific deaths continue to be higher among the 45 to 54 and 55 to 64 age groups, which together accounted for 64.7% of all alcohol-specific deaths registered in 2020.
- As deprivation increases, alcohol specific deaths also increase. The age-standardised death rate in the most deprived areas are four times higher than the alcohol-specific death rates in the least deprived areas.
- Alcohol-specific deaths have been on the rise since 2001.
A recent study published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE found that during 2020 after British lockdown was implemented, excess alcohol purchases were higher in the north of England and lower in Scotland and Wales. Furthermore, the most deprived households had the highest excess alcohol purchases compared to the least deprived households. The heaviest alcohol users increased buying alcohol products the most.
Cheap alcohol continues fuelling alcohol burden in Britain
The above study concluded that alcohol policy solutions to reduce alcohol consumption and resulting harm are even more important during extraordinary times such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
In England alcohol remains extremely cheap. This is exacerbating a heavy alcohol burden. Under the influence of the alcohol industry lobby, the UK government has been cutting or freezing alcohol taxes since 2012. As a result, the alcohol industry has been increasing their profit margins at the cost of British people’s’ health and lives. Cheap alcohol products by the alcohol industry specifically prey on the most vulnerable, such as the most deprived communities and people with alcohol problems.
A 2018 report from the Institute of Alcohol Studies showed that heavy alcohol users only make up 25% of all alcohol users but provide 68% of industry revenue.
The alcohol tax cuts since 2012 in the UK cost the lives of 2000 people, caused 61,000 avoidable hospital admissions and fueled 111,000 alcohol-related crime cases.
The effects of the harm caused by cheap alcohol products in Britain are clearly visible. In 2020, the Office for National Statistics reported that there was a 19% increase in alcohol-specific deaths in the UK. This is the highest increase in alcohol deaths since the records began.
The reason that the PLoS ONE study found fewer alcohol purchases in Scotland and Wales compared to England could be due to minimum unit pricing for alcohol (MUP) off-setting the UK tax cuts. According to a study published in the Lancet, the alcohol MUP in Scotland led to 7.7% decrease in household alcohol purchases in 2020. In Wales the decrease was 8.6%.
In 2019, after one full year of implementation of the alcohol MUP Scotland recorded a 10% decrease in alcohol-specific deaths.
It is crucial that the UK government increase alcohol taxes or implement an alcohol MUP policy like in Scotland and Wales to protect communities from the harm caused by cheap alcohol products.
Ärzteblatt.de: “More English people with problem drinking“
Belfast Telegraph: “NI alcohol-specific deaths reaches highest level on record in 2020 figures“
Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA): “Annual 2020 Alcohol-Specific Deaths statistics“