The rise in alcohol-related deaths was fuelled by increased levels of at-home drinking during lockdown, public health officials suggest

AdobeStock_292279272

There has been a record-breaking rise in alcohol-related liver disease deaths in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals.

There were 8974 deaths from alcohol-specific causes registered in 2020, up from 7565 deaths in 2019. This represents the highest year-on-year increase since the ONS data series began in 2001, and also bucks a trend in which alcohol-related mortality levels remained stable for the previous 7 years. As in previous years, men were more than twice as likely as women to die from alcohol-related reasons in 2020.

Call for immediate action by liver charity

More than three-quarters of alcohol-specific deaths are caused by alcoholic liver disease, and the 2020 mortality figures represent an increase of over 80% compared to 2010, the British Liver Trust pointed out, calling for immediate action.
‘This new data confirms our fears that the increase in alcohol consumption and the disruption to alcohol support services during the pandemic has sadly led to thousands more deaths from alcohol-related liver disease,’ said Vanessa Hebditch, Director of Policy at the British Liver Trust.

Alcohol during lockdown to blame?

The ONS said there are many complex factors related to the spike in alcohol-related deaths seen since April 2020, which will take time to verify.

‘However, the fact that mortality rates from key causes of death related to alcohol increased in 2020 suggests that an increase in alcohol harm was a wider impact of the pandemic’, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities said.

Data from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities show that alcohol consumption patterns have changed since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic

Following the first COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, consumer sales of alcohol surged in the UK—data from a consumer purchasing panel show that in shops and supermarkets just over 12.6 million extra litres of alcohol were sold in the financial year 2020–2021 compared to 2019–2020 (a 24.4% increase). Meanwhile, access to alcohol support services was reduced during the pandemic.

Hebditch said: ‘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.

‘Drinking alcohol to excess is the leading cause of liver disease in the UK. A common myth is that you have to be an ‘alcoholic’ to damage your liver. The truth is that more than one in five people in the UK currently drink alcohol in way that could harm their liver.’

England and Scotland most impacted

Broken down by region, the ONS figures show that while alcohol-specific deaths in 2020 rose across all four UK constituent countries, statistically significant increases were only seen in England and Scotland.

Scotland and Northern Ireland had the highest rates of alcohol-specific deaths in 2020 (21.5 and 19.6 deaths per 100,000 people, respectively).

Responding to the figures, the Director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems Elinor Jayne said: ‘The harm caused by alcohol in Scotland is once again highlighted by new data showing that of the four nations of the UK, we have the highest alcohol-specific death rate, with a significant increase in deaths in 2020. For every person who has died, there are many, many left behind who will be dealing with the suffering caused by alcohol both while their loved one was alive, and now that they are dead. And for every person who has died, there are many, many more in Scotland who have an alcohol problem which is affecting their daily lives, relationships, and health.

‘We should not accept that somehow alcohol harm is acceptable in Scotland. We need more to be done to prevent problems from developing such as increasing the level of minimum unit pricing from 50p to 65p and restricting marketing of alcohol. 

‘On top of that, we must now see a real focus on the services and treatment that people with alcohol problems in Scotland should be able to access, with a view to increasing capacity and making it much easier for people with alcohol problems to gain the support and treatment they need to reduce consumption or stop drinking altogether.’

This article was originally published on Medscape, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

Credit:

Lead image: Rasi/stock.adobe.com

Image 1: Rasi/stock.adobe.com