COVID-19 major cause of increased alcohol harm in UK
The study findings by Professor Carl Heneghan and Dr Tom Jefferson illustrate that deaths due to alcohol increased by 27% in the UK after the pandemic struck.
The research, based on Office of National Statistics (ONS) data, shows the number of people who died directly due to the effects of alcohol. For example, liver disease deaths due to alcohol soared to 9,641 in 2021 from 7,565 in 2019.
Prof. Heneghan explained that it is difficult sometimes to disentangle the effects of COVID-19 from the effects of lockdown measures, according to Express reporting.
In this case it is clear. These are deaths wholly attributable to alcohol.”
Prof. Heneghan explained that the new data reveal an increase of at least 27.4% in alcohol deaths, according to Express reporting.
Males die more frequently – twice that of females. Mental disorders and accidental poisoning events were present but played a small part in adding to the tally.”Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine, Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford
Most of the alcohol deaths occur among chronic heavy alcohol users who use alcohol to cope, according to Prof. Heneghan.
Dr Tom Jefferson, senior associate tutor at the University of Oxford explained that these soaring death toll is due to alcohol:
No other explanation is possible for the speed of such an increase… Alcohol-related liver cirrhosis does not develop overnight – it typically develops after heavy [alcohol use] for ten or more years,” said Dr Tom Jefferson, senior associate tutor at the University of Oxford, as per Express reporting.
… [W]ith alcohol dependency services being shut and GP services being cut it meant people didn’t get the help they needed. Many were also vulnerable and living alone and it is likely their [alcohol use] was exacerbated by the loneliness of lockdowns.”Dr Tom Jefferson, senior associate tutor, University of Oxford
The figures are likely to underestimate the full scope of the problem. The data does not include deaths where alcohol may have contributed to the cause, such as long term conditions including cancer or heart disease because the ONS data refers to only deaths which were “a direct consequence of alcohol.”
The UK is also looking a problem that will get worse. The ONS report reveals that increasing and higher risk alcohol use remained at heightened levels as of March 2022. With this finding, the ONS issued a stark warning that the consequences of increased exposure to alcohol will take time to manifest themselves fully.
Alcohol-specific deaths have risen sharply since the onset of the pandemic, with alcoholic liver disease the leading cause of these deaths. Research has suggested people who were already [consuming alcohol] at higher levels before the pandemic were the most likely to have increased their alcohol consumption during this period.
If these consumption patterns persist there could be hundreds of thousands of additional cases of alcohol-related diseases and thousands of extra deaths as a result.”National statistics: Adult substance misuse treatment statistics 2021 to 2022: report.
Published January 19, 2023
People living with alcohol use disorder and addiction need help
Nat Travis, national head of substance use problems at charity Turning Point has said that they saw “a significant increase in the number of alcohol referrals” during lockdown, which is reflected in the latest figures.
As restrictions were placed due to the pandemic, the following factors have contributed to reduced access to alcohol treatment facilities:
- Service users testing positive for COVID-19 and not being able to access treatment,
- Staff testing positive and not being able to go to work,
- Service users and staff getting ill with COVID-19, and
- The above and other factors causing longer waits and reduced access to healthcare.
Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of the charity Alcohol Change UK, believes about 600,000 people in the UK require alcohol treatment, but said “the vast majority are not accessing it,” according to the BBC.
The data, published by the Office for Health Improvement & Disparities, shows:
- At 84,697, alcohol alone made up the second largest group of people in treatment for substance use disorder,
- of those who completed treatment, 49% did so successfully, and
- people treated for alcohol had the highest successful completion rate at 59%.
Key findings from Adult Substance Use Disorder Treatment Statistics 2021 to 2022
According to BBC News reporting, there was a 10% increase in the number of adults treated for alcohol use disorder in England in the year to March 2022. This increase is caused by a rise in alcohol use during the lockdown period.
The study revealed staggering data about soaring alcohol harm:
- The rise in alcohol use pushed the number of people receiving treatment for all types of substance use disorder to 289,215.
- From people in contact with alcohol and other drug services between April 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022, 29% had issues related to alcohol use.
- The median age of people in treatment was 46 years for alcohol.
- Of the people starting treatment, 64% said they had a problem with alcohol and two-thirds (67%) said it was their only substance use problem.
The extent of alcohol harm in the UK
Alcohol harm in Britain has remained a hidden health crisis for a long time. Now with the pandemic, the alcohol burden has been brought into sharp focus.
According to WHO Europe, the total per capita alcohol consumption (alcohol users only) in the UK among both males (21.8 litres) and females (7.6 litres) is higher than the European regional average.
In the UK, alcohol directly causes
- 72% of liver cirrhosis,
- 21.6% of injuries,
- 6.2% of cancers, and
- 2% of cardiovascular diseases.
The total alcohol burden in the country is very heavy.
The cost of alcohol harm
The total social cost of alcohol to society is estimated to be at least £27 billion a year.
Research has further identified the following costs related to alcohol:
In the UK,
- Alcohol is the leading risk factor for death, ill-health, and disability amongst 15-49-year-olds.
- Alcohol causes more working years of life lost than the ten most common cancers combined.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated alcohol harm leading to alcohol deaths reaching an all-time high.
- Deprived communities are disproportionately affected by alcohol harm, despite consuming less.
- The estimated cost of alcohol harm to UK society is at least £27 billion every year.
- Less than half is offset by tax revenue from alcohol.
Previously, two modeling studies from England highlighted the need for urgent alcohol policy action by the UK government to prevent alcohol-caused ill-health, save lives and save money for the National Health Services (NHS). According to both reports, the increase in alcohol use, during the COVID-19 pandemic by those who use alcohol heavily, could lead to the alcohol burden increasing exponentially in the coming years.
Alcohol policy action needed
The BBC reports that the UK government said it was committed to tackling the root causes of soaring alcohol deaths. But the government has ignored the interest of the public for years, by prioritizing the profit interest of the alcohol industry and leaving proven alcohol policy solutions untouched.
Improved alcohol policy solutions are urgently needed in the UK to tackle the increasing burden of alcohol harm which is affecting families, communities, and especially children in the UK.
In the UK, alcohol causes more deaths than other drugs. Yet the UK has not had an alcohol strategy since 2012. A broad coalition has urged the government to conduct a review on alcohol harm and recommend evidence-based, high-impact policy solutions to tackle the problems faced by people and communities in Britain.
The World Health Organization recommends the SAFER package of evidence-based alcohol policy solutions. In this package, the three alcohol policy Best Buys have the highest impact on preventing and reducing alcohol harm at the lowest cost.
- Limiting the availability of alcohol products.
- Raising prices of alcohol through excise taxes or other pricing policies.
- Enforcing bans or comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising, sponsorship, and promotion.
Alcohol services should be strengthened to address the needs of people with alcohol issues
In addition to inaction by the government, funding cuts to mental health services are also exacerbating the already severe problems. In recent years, over two-thirds of local authorities have cut their funding for alcohol services, many by over 50%.
As reported by the Local Government Association, responding to the above figures showing that the number of people accessing alcohol treatment services has increased in the last year, Cllr David Fothergill, Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, said:
People with alcohol problems should be able to get the right support and treatment when they need it. For many people, their first experience of treatment is the catalyst for getting the help they need to address their physical and mental health problems.
This data shows more people have come forward for council commissioned alcohol treatment, which is helping transform the lives of the people who need them the most.
These vital addiction support services are funded by councils’ public health grant, which has seen reductions of around £1 billion since 2015. Councils now need urgent clarity about how this work will be funded in the future. The Government should commit to a long-term increase to the public health grant so people can get the best support possible in overcoming addiction.”Cllr David Fothergill, Chairman, Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board
National statistics. Adult substance misuse treatment statistics 2021 to 2022: report. Published 19 January 2023 (PDF)
Local Government Association: “Councils need urgent clarity about how addiction services will be funded in future – LGA responds to adult substance misuse treatment statistics”
BBC: “Pandemic drinking: Alcohol misuse treatment up 10%“
Express: “The number of alcohol-related disease soared by 27% since COVID“