Binge-drinking blamed for increase in liver cirrhosis across Britain

Britons are paying the penalty for the soaring rate of alcohol consumption, a report by doctors published today shows.

According to the report, deaths from liver cirrhosis are rising faster in Britain than anywhere else in Europe. The rise has been especially sharp in men and women aged under 45, where death rates now exceed the European average.

The death toll from cirrhosis, in which the liver becomes scarred and loses its ability to function, began accelerating more than 20 years ago. It more than doubled in men in Scotland in the decade to 2001, increasing by two-thirds in England. In women, the death rate increased by half in both countries.

But in the rest of Europe, death rates in men and women have fallen by between 20 and 30 per cent since the early 1970s, although they still remain high, the study found. Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine blamed Britain's drinking culture, which has seen sharp increases in consumption, especially of wine and spirits.

The figures were compared with 12 other European countries - Austria, Finland, Germany, the Republic of Ireland, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Denmark.

The researchers said: "Although Britain used to have some of the lowest cirrhosis mortality rates in Europe, this advantage has been rapidly eroded. Scotland, in particular, now has some of the highest rates in western Europe.

"Although absolute rates in England and Wales remain relatively low, in the most recent years they have risen steeply and are now on a par with or have exceeded the western European average."

Professor David Leon, who led the study, said: "Alcohol policies in Britain should be assessed by the extent to which they can successfully halt the adverse trends in liver cirrhosis mortality. The situation in Scotland warrants particular attention."

Liver cirrhosis is the result of years of heavy drinking but experts say the amount of heavy drinking in a population is related to the total amount consumed. If average drinking rises, heavy drinking rises too.

The fall in cirrhosis deaths in Europe has been driven by the decline in drinking, especially of wine, in the southern Mediterranean countries, the authors say. In the UK, increases in heavy drinking, obesity and the spread of the virus hepatitis C may have contributed to the rise.

In a commentary on the finding, Professor Robin Room of Stockholm University blames the UK government for ignoring the problem. He says Britain used to be renowned for its low rates of liver cirrhosis. The British predilection for binge drinking and the choice of drink may affect the incidence of cirrhosis, but there is "no doubt" that the cumulative amount of alcohol consumed has a "primary role", he said.

"But the UK Government has turned a blind eye to the problem and has failed to make the reduction of the population's alcohol intake a policy goal," he added. Don Shenker, director of policy and services at the charity Alcohol Concern, said: "This new study backs up what we have been saying for a long time: successive governments have failed to tackle one of the country's most deadly health problems. Excessive drinking kills about 22,000 people every year. That is why it is so shameful that for those drinkers who need help, fewer than one in 10 get the help they require."

Facts about alcohol

* More than one in five men and almost one in 10 women binge drink every week - consuming more than eight units of alcohol in a day for men or six units for women. A unit is half a pint of beer or a glass of wine.

* Excessive alcohol intake is the most common cause of sudden fits in young men. Up to 50 per cent of weekend accident and emergency department admissions are due to drinking incidents.

* Women suffer worse brain damage than men when they drink too much.

* A woman's risk of breast cancer rises by 6 per cent for each extra alcoholic drink she has on an average daily basis.

* The rise in alcohol intake in Britain is the main reason behind the recent steep rise in cases of mouth cancer, which kills 1,600 people in the UK every year - more than cervical and testicular cancer put together.

* When the liver breaks down alcohol, it forms a by-product called acetaldehyde. If high levels of alcohol are constantly being processed through the liver, acetaldehyde can build up. This attacks the liver and causes the scarring of the tissue that leads to cirrhosis.

* Between 10 and 25 per cent of alcoholics develop cirrhosis, but some do not, because of genetic factors.

* Alcohol boosts the production of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, producing feelings of euphoria.

* It is a neurotoxin, causing brain cells to swell and slowing their responses.

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