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Alcohol & Other Drugs, News & Media

Cranstoun’s Response to “Alcohol-specific deaths in the UK: registered in 2022” ONS Release

Posted on: 26 April, 2024

This week the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released the data for alcohol specific deaths for the year 2022. Tragically, this revealed that for the first time since records began over 10,000 people (10,048) died directly because of alcohol-specific causes*.

This staggering number does not include instances where high levels of alcohol consumption contributed to a fatality but was not the direct cause of death. The figure for associated deaths, or where alcohol was a contributing factor, will be significantly higher.

The most recent statistics mark an increase of 4.2% compared to the figures for 2021, and increased rate (per 100,000) rising from 14.9 to 16.6.

Scotland and Northern Ireland had the highest rates of alcohol-specific deaths in 2022 (22.6 and 19.5 deaths per 100,000 people, respectively). In England, the area with the highest death rate was the North-East (21.8), which is also has the highest drug death rate, and is among the poorest areas in the UK.

Generally, areas with higher levels of deprivation seem to have a higher death rate than the most affluent parts of the country, further highlighting the inextricable link between health inequality, damaging levels of substance use and deprivation.

Additionally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a report this week revealing that alcohol is the most used by substance by young people, with half of 15 year olds across Europe, central Asia and Canada trying alcohol at least once and nearly 4 in 10 (37%) indicating they have consumed alcohol in the past 30 days.

Covid Impacts

Worryingly, there has been significant increases in the alcohol-specific death rate in England, Wales, and Scotland compared to 2019 – the last year data was recorded prior to the pandemic. Before Covid, the rate was relatively stable over the previous seven years between 2012 and 2019.

Research from Colin Angus of Sheffield University modelled drinking habits through the Covid-19 pandemic, finding that moderate drinkers decreased use overall but people who were already deemed heavy drinkers generally increased their intake. Angus’ research also found that the biggest increase in harm occurs in the most deprived 20% of the population.

This increase is likely partially caused by the continued impact of lockdowns, which led to changing drinking patterns. Hidden drinking at home increased, without the social ‘check in’ of others to look out for one another.

Alcohol in supermarkets and shops is cheaper than pubs and restaurants, enabling people to drink more. Many were furloughed during the pandemic, and others began working from home for the first time – creating more hours in the day to drink without social observation.

Additionally, measurements used in public drinking places such as pubs are seldom used at home, meaning many will have been drinking more without realising they are doing so, just by ‘free pouring’.

Given people who are ‘heavy drinkers’, especially those in deprived areas, are the most likely to suffer adverse health consequences, we may continue to see an increase in alcohol-specific hospital admissions and consequential deaths. Angus’ research concludes pandemic-era changes in alcohol consumption are likely to have a significant negative impact on both public health and health inequalities.

Harms

Excessive, long-term alcohol consumption can lead to serious adverse health consequences including liver disease, heart disease, stroke and digestive problems. These risks are particularly pronounced in those who also have an unhealthy diet, are using certain medications or smoke cigarettes.

Whilst units are a helpful metric for people to better understand their level of consumption, many people who drink will not know the direct conversion from alcohol percentage to number of units. Ensuring people understand what harmful drinking is, how to mitigate risks, and where to seek help if they think they are drinking too much is essential for reducing the number of people who end up with irreversible damage to their body.

The ability of treatment and health providers to adequately support people with reducing alcohol intake or managing a health condition is significantly hindered by the fact many seek help for their drinking at the point at which irreversible damage has already been caused.

Given strong evidence suggesting heavy drinkers may be at increased risk of health harms due to Covid increases, more must be done to engage this group before their health worsens further, which is likely to result in more fatalities and higher health costs to the taxpayer. Concerted efforts should be made by various stakeholders to reduce the stigma associated in entering treatment for substance use and normalise this as a positive health choice.

Consideration – and additional necessary funding and support – must be given to relevant providers to enable impactful solutions that will increase the number of people engaged with services at an earlier point, and hence reduce the number of people dying from causes directly related to alcohol use.

Efforts must be made to support people with long-term alcohol dependencies, who may already be suffering adverse consequences. In Sandwell, Cranstoun partners on the award-winning Sandwell Blue Light Project, which has been proven to improve individual outcomes and provide a significant cost saving. This joined-up approach between stakeholders includes treatment providers, health bodies, emergency services and housing teams which enables wrap-around coordinated support for people with alcohol dependencies.

Cranstoun calls on the government to provide necessary additional support to bodies tasked with treating the health and social implications of excessive alcohol use. Furthermore, great benefits could be reaped through an alcohol awareness campaign which encourages people who are drinking significantly more than NHS guidelines to seek support sooner, with a focus on tackling associated stigma.

Potential solutions for the reduction of excessive alcohol consumption could include more stringent restrictions around the advertising of alcohol products. Research published in the BMJ found that over four fifths of young people recalled seeing alcohol advertising within the month prior to being surveyed. Additionally, those attempting to reduce or halt their alcohol consumption may be less likely to do so given alcohol marketing is ubiquitous and carefully designed to increase sales of a harmful, addictive product.

In Scotland, where the specific death rate from alcohol has long been among the highest in the UK, minimum unit pricing was introduced in 2018. Analysis of the policies’ impact published last year estimates that minimum unit pricing significantly reduced deaths wholly attributable to alcohol consumption by 13.4%. The UK government must consider initiatives such as minimum unit pricing, which is also recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO), by carefully reviewing the results from Scotland and elsewhere.

The Alcohol Health Alliance also suggest higher taxation for the most harmful products and those most appealing to adolescents, whilst a graduated taxation scale – relative to alcohol strength – may be an option which effectively targets high strength alcohol products.

Unfortunately, in addition to continued impacts of post-Covid health consequences, other factors may worsen the situation in the short to medium term too. This includes the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and difficulty for many in accessing GP services on the NHS. The government must consider how this can be mitigated, potentially by increasing support for schemes that help people to reduce their alcohol use, before significant health consequences are felt.

A cohesive, joined-up national alcohol harm strategy which is regularly reviewed by a range of stakeholders could also improve the situation. Devolved powers related to alcohol decision-making could create potential hurdles, but given there are only minor differences in devolved nations’ policies towards alcohol, this is likely not insurmountable.

Lastly, Cranstoun’s deepest sympathies are with those who have tragically lost a loved one to alcohol. The scale of suffering is unprecedented, and we encourage the government to take urgent action to tackle the issue and subsequently save lives. We encourage readers to write to their MP, using this template from the Alcohol Health Alliance. Indications demonstrate that without immediate attention, the number of people dying from alcohol could continue to spiral. The culmination will be even more suffering, and a larger health bill for the taxpayer.

Annie Steele, Assistant Director of Substance-use, said:

“Our deepest sympathy and thoughts are with those who have lost a loved one because of alcohol. The enormous number of people dying is staggeringly tragic, and much more must be done to educate people on the harms of excessive alcohol use.

“People who enter our services often only do so at the point in which they are encountering serious health problems from their alcohol use, and we must tackle stigma associated with seeking help for substances to enable people to explore treatment options before irreversible damage has been suffered.”

Note: *The ONS describes alcohol-specific deaths as those where each death is a “direct consequence of alcohol (that is, wholly attributable causes such as alcoholic liver disease). It does not include all deaths that can be attributed to alcohol”.

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