Alcohol deaths rise by 20 per cent in five years

The number of people dying from diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver in some parts of the country has risen by nearly 50 per cent since 2000, according to figures released yesterday by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Britons are "literally drinking themselves to death", the Liberal Democrats warned, as the Government came under increasing pressure to review the imminent relaxation of licensing laws.

Alcohol was logged as the primary cause of death on 6,544 people's death certificates in 2004, compared with 5,525 in 2000, the ONS figures show. Tens of thousands more people will have died as an indirect result of alcohol from conditions such as heart disease and cancer.

Alcohol campaigners warned that the statistics were just the tip of the iceberg, with many hundreds of thousands more people suffering health problems because of excessive drinking.

While smoking rates are coming down, levels of excessive drinking and related health problems are rising every year. Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrats spokeswoman on police, crime and disorder, who uncovered the figures, said the scale of the problem was "deeply worrying." She said: "The Government must address the underlying reasons why people are drinking themselves literally to death. I am worried that the proposed change to licensing laws will add to this startling increase in drink-related deaths."

The increased death toll from alcohol in some regions is even higher than the 18.4 per cent average rise for England and Wales. Fatalities in Yorkshire and the Humber rose by 46.5 per cent, in the North-east it was 28.4 per cent and in the West Midlands 24.2 per cent.

Martin Plant, professor of addiction studies at the University of the West of England, said: "Alcohol-related liver disease used to be only found in middle-aged and elderly people, but now evidence is mounting that more and more people in their twenties and thirties are being diagnosed with it. It is very depressing; in recent years we have seen more and more young people drinking more, especially women."

Doctors are now seeing girls as young as 17 with cirrhosis of the liver due to excessive drinking. The Government estimates that alcohol-related harm costs the country £20bn a year.

According to the European School Survey Project on Alcohol, British teenagers drink more than any of their EU peers. One in three girls and one in five boys aged 15 and 16 admitted to binge drinking three or more times in the previous month.

Judges and police officers have warned that the reform of the licensing law, which comes into effect from November, will lead to a rise in alcohol-related crime and other social problems. They are concerned that extended drinking hours, including the potential for 24-hour opening, will create chaos, particularly on high streets with several pubs and bars and a young clientele.

Campaigners said the physical, psychological and social impact of excess and binge drinking was not confined to the young. Geethika Jayatilaka, head of policy and public affairs at the charity Alcohol Concern, said: "One of the problems is that a lot of the focus has been on binge drinking among young people when out in town centres.

"It is not to denigrate that issue, but it means that other problems have not been addressed or given the same publicity.

"There is a huge problem with hidden drinking, in the home, and among all ages and sexes and classes. It is harder to address than smoking, where you can say that every cigarette is bad for you, or drugs that are illegal, because alcohol is legal and in moderation is alright. We have got to be a lot more savvy about how we get our messages across, and maybe take our cue from how clever the drinks industry has been in advertising its products."

The Government spends £40,000 a year on campaigns advocating sensible drinking, compared with £25m on anti-smoking advertising. The drinks industry spends a collective £200m a year on marketing alcohol.

Campaigners say another factor in reducing the burden of excessive drinking lies in better treatment for alcoholics.

Richard Kramer, director of policy at the charity Turning Point, said: "At least part of the rise in deaths must be attributed to the lack of adequate services for people who need and seek help."

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