Experts warn of an alcohol health crisis ahead

Medics in hospital with patient

ALARMING statistics show that more than 750,000 hospital admissions were due to alcohol-related harm at the height of the Covid 19 pandemic.

The figures have been published by NHS Digital which provides health data in the UK for health policy experts.

They show that between April and December 2020 more than 100 patients per hour were admitted to hospital as a result of drinking. More than three quarters of those cases involved patients over the age of 50.

Alcohol-related admissions involving patients between 60 and 80 stood at over 300,000, compared to fewer than 100,000 admissions for patients aged 20 to 40.

The figures come just six months after health experts warned that the number of people drinking levels of alcohol that put them at “high risk” had doubled since before lockdown. This is expected to have long-term effects as a major factor in a range of physical health risks and mental illness.

Deaths from alcohol misuse hit a new high during the first nine months of 2020, up 16% on the same months in 2019 and the biggest toll recorded since records began in 2001.

Alcohol is now understood to be one of the factors linked to heart disease, stroke and 7 types of cancer, while deaths linked to liver disease have risen by 400% in 40 years.

It can also contribute to the worsening of symptoms of many mental health conditions, especially low mood and anxiety, depressive disorder and is often a factor in suicide.

A new wave of alcohol harm

Campaigners are now warning of a wave of future cases of alcohol harm overwhelming frontline health care workers in the NHS as well as straining mental health services. Tens of thousands of preventable deaths are predicted over the next 20 years despite calls from people in the medical professions, in an ongoing battle, to change behaviour.

Researchers say that while some people cut down during the Covid 19 outbreak, the emotional distress impact on people of the Coronavirus pandemic led to 8m people admitting to drinking at risky levels in 2020.

Health experts believe that those who did reduce their alcohol intake were more likely to be health-conscious people who were already drinking a level of alcohol that is lower in risk of harm.

Alcohol harm prevention campaigners from the health promotion organisation Balance based in north east England are concerned that the recent relaxation of Covid regulations could lead to more binge drinking as pubs are allowed to open for outdoor drinking.

The organisation is urging people to adopt healthier behaviours and avoid potential pitfalls of more regular drinking which can weaken the immune system and harm physical and mental health.

Lockdown drinking patterns

Sue Taylor, Acting Head of Alcohol Policy for Balance, said: “When it comes to alcohol, we know that lockdown has created worrying drinking patterns which can make people feel worse and cause more family tension.

“People are looking forward to socialising but drinking too much alcohol does not need to be part of it – at the end of the day alcohol is a toxin and a depressant which can harm health and cause hangovers, tiredness and low mood.

“It can sometimes feel we are surrounded by alcohol, from advertising on TV to our weekly shop in the supermarket. Whether or not you’ve felt your drinking creeping up during lockdown, now is a really important time to be looking after ourselves and our families, mentally and physically, and that includes trying to stick within the limits of 14 units per week.”

Dr Sarah Louden, a GP from Newcastle, said: “As we come out of lockdown we completely understand that a lot of people will want to enjoy the opportunities to socialise with friends and family again, however it is still really important to look after our health.

“Some of the best things you can do for your health – both now and in the longer term – are to not smoke, try to keep to a healthy weight and don’t drink too much alcohol.

“This can help reduce your risk of heart disease, strokes and certain cancers and boost your immune system and mental health. If you are struggling speak to your GP who can offer further advice.”

The alcohol risk-factor

According to Public Health England – which carries our research for the government and health authorities – alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15-49 year olds in the UK, and the fifth biggest risk factor across all ages.

It is a causal factor in more than 60 medical conditions, including: mouth, throat, stomach, liver and breast cancers, high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver, and depression.

Health experts and leaders in the medical field that England and Wales had been warning long before Covid that we are approaching a “tipping point” in the level of alcohol-related deaths.

Notable figures from The Royal College of Physicians, the National Institute of Health Research , together with members of the British Society of Gastroenterologists, predicted up to 210,000 preventable deaths over the next 20 years.

The projected figures include a possible 70,000 deaths from liver disease and an estimated financial impact of £2.7bn cost to the NHS from alcohol related disease and the subsequent impact on society.

The group has urged the government to address the level of alcohol-related harm through legislative action on pricing, availability and marketing alcoholic drinks.

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Christine Humphreys

Christine Humphreys

Chris Humphreys is the co-founder of The Alcohol-Free Shop and AlcoholFree.com. She was a journalist for more years than she cares to remember. Ex-wife of an alcoholic, enthusiastic amateur musician and a passionate dog lover.

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