Prescriptions to treat alcohol dependency reach record level

Record numbers of drinkers are being prescribed pills to help them beat alcohol addiction, according to official figures published yesterday.

More than 150,000 people were forced to rely on medication to fight their alcohol dependency last year. The figures revealed that GPs issued more than 150,000 prescriptions last year for anti-alcohol drugs – a 12 per cent rise on last year. The findings raise concerns that campaigns for sensible drinking are not working.

In 2009 nearly 95,000 prescriptions of acamprosate calcium were dispensed. The drug helps restore the brain's chemical balance to reduce a patient's withdrawal symptoms from alcohol.

Over the same period, more than 55,500 disulfiram prescriptions were dispensed, which causes a severe and unpleasant reaction in the patient if they drink alcohol. It is unclear whether the increased uptake of alcohol medication reflects a genuine rise in the number of problem drinkers or a greater willingness among drinkers to seek treatment and doctors to offer medication.

The data from the NHS Information Centre also found that one in four adults risk damaging their health with "hazardous" alcohol consumption.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "Doctors determine what's best for their patients. If someone is finding it hard to stop drinking, their GP might decide to prescribe medication." In 2008 there were 6,769 deaths directly related to alcohol, an increase of 24 per cent since 2001 – suggesting that alcohol abuse is creating a problem which is yet to peak. The main contributor to this increase was the rise in alcoholic liver disease, up 36 per cent from 3,236 cases in 2001 to 4,400 in 2008. There were also 1,367 deaths due to alcohol-related fibrosis and cirrhosis of the liver.

Almost three in 10 men (28 per cent) reported drinking more than the recommended 21 units a week, with almost one in five women (19 per cent) consuming more than the recommended 14 units in a week.

Seven per cent of men said they drank more than 50 units, or 25 pints, a week while 5 per cent of women reported a consumption of more than 35 units a week – equivalent to nearly three bottles of wine.

However, sensible drinking campaigns appear to have influenced the behaviour of schoolchildren, who were less likely to have tried an alcoholic drink than in 2001. Some 48 per cent of 11 to 15-year-olds said they had never tried alcohol, compared to 39 per cent in 2003. Young people in London were the least likely to have had a drink, but 63 per cent of those in the North-east had tried one.

Almost 18 per cent of this age group reported drinking alcohol in the previous week, down from 2001 when 26 per cent of pupils reported drinking in the last seven days. These students reported drinking an average of 14.6 units – equivalent to more than seven pints of normal-strength beer – in the last week.

Middle-class professionals were most likely to have consumed alcohol in the previous week – 79 per cent of professional men and 67 per cent of women. Manual workers had the lowest consumption, with only 64 per cent of men and 46 per cent of women drinking in the past week. Chris Sorek, the chief executive of Drinkaware, said: "You don't have to be dependent on alcohol to be drinking at levels that put your health at risk. More than one in five men and one in 10 women are technically binge-drinking once a week and probably don't even realise.

"It's shocking to discover that alcohol-related deaths are again on the increase – and, with a rise in prescription items dispensed to treat drink dependency, it's vital now, more than ever, that we act to educate people on the effects of drinking too much before more people come to harm."

Simon Litherland, managing director of Diageo GB, which makes beers, wines and spirits, said: "While alcohol misuse is a serious issue in Britain, these figures not only show that overall alcohol consumption continues to fall, but that there is clear progress in raising awareness and tackling misuse.

"The number of people binge drinking, drinking under age and exceeding government guidelines have all fallen – clear signs of the early success of campaigns by Government and industry."

Jo Webber, the deputy director of policy of the Ambulance Service Network at the NHS Confederation, said: "The role of the NHS should not just be about treating the consequences of alcohol-related harm but also about active prevention, early intervention, and working in partnership with services in local communities to raise awareness of alcohol-related harm."

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