British armed forces suffer record levels of alcohol abuse

More than 1,600 service personnel required medical treatment in the past year

Record levels of alcohol abuse in Britain's armed forces have led to more than 1,600 service personnel – the equivalent of several infantry battalions – requiring medical treatment in the past year.

New figures obtained from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) under Freedom of Information laws show that the number of service personnel falling victim to alcohol abuse is at its highest since incidents first began to be collected centrally by the Defence Medical Information Capability Programme in 2007.

Heart problems, alcohol poisoning, liver disease and alcoholic psychosis are among the conditions which the system records. And the numbers needing medical help for drink-related problems soared by 28 per cent between 2012 and 2013.

It is a marked escalation on previous years, with 2011 and 2012 seeing year on year rises of 5 per cent and 4 per cent respectively.

However, the MoD insisted: "We have introduced a brand new system to better record instances of alcohol misuse; this is being rolled out so it is inevitable that as more people use it, the recorded levels of alcohol misuse would rise."

The toll of abuse has resulted in hundreds of soldiers being admitted to psychiatric units over the past five years, with more than 1,300 service personnel treated at mental health units or admitted to an "in-patient provider for psychoactive substance misuse for alcohol".

But the official figures do not reflect the true scale of the problem: "The numbers presented for UK armed forces personnel with psychoactive substance abuse for alcohol should be regarded as a minimum," the MoD said.

More than 4,000 service personnel have been "disciplined for being intoxicated" since 2009, most of whom will have been on duty at the time, according to defence officials.

Drink is a far bigger problem in the Army than drugs, admitted General Lord Dannatt, a former chief of general staff: "Abuse of alcohol has long been a chronic problem in the Army – more so than misuse of drugs which is dealt with very severely.

"The culture of working hard and then playing hard often leads to misuse of alcohol.

"That said, there is a greater awareness in the Army of the dangers of alcohol abuse and of the importance of physical fitness, than 10 or 20 years ago.

"Probably the increased incidence of alcohol misuse is a symptom of the intensity of recent operations – albeit that in the field all Army units are dry."

The drinking culture in the armed forces "has an impact on levels of domestic violence, sexual offences, mental and physical health and family life", according to Madeleine Moon, Labour MP for Bridgend and a member of the Defence Select Committee. "The figures show the problem is increasing and destroying lives. The low price of alcohol in the Mess, the drinking culture and the denial of the crisis we face need urgent attention via independent research tasked with exploring the problem and seeking solutions," she added.

Defence minister Anna Soubry has pledged to take action against a culture of "drinking to the point of oblivion" in the armed forces. The commitment was made during an evidence session before the Defence Select Committee two weeks ago, in which MPs called for an end to subsidised drinks in military bars.

"I am not convinced that we couldn't do more about the culture of drinking in our armed forces," Ms Soubry said. New guidance is to be given to senior officers on how to deal with drinking among those under their command.

Younger soldiers are most at risk, with one in four 18- to 24-year-olds in the Army admitting to drinking at harmful levels, twice the average for the armed forces as a whole and three times that of their civilian counterparts, according to a study by the ForcesWatch network last year.

But the problem does not end when people leave the armed forces. Dr Walter Busuttil, of the Combat Stress charity, said: "We are aware of significant alcohol and illicit substance related disorders …. Our audits show that 69 per cent of our veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress also suffer or have suffered alcohol misuse disorders at some point."

And Eric Appleby, the chief executive of Alcohol Concern, commented: "It's not surprising that the armed forces struggle to identify and deal with alcohol misuse – it's a reflection of wider society and the difficult, complex and all too often destructive relationship we have with alcohol."

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