Millions of UK adults at risk of ‘silent harm’ caused by higher alcohol consumption

Switch to drinking at home resulted in longer drinking sessions, expert says

Kate Ng
Monday 17 January 2022 09:58
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Experts have warned that millions of Britons are causing themselves “silent harm” as the rise in at-home drinking has surged to levels considered to be high risk.

New data from the government’s Office for Health Improvement and Disparities reveals that millions of people in England are drinking wine, beers and spirits at levels that are harmful to their health.

The official data, based on YouGov surveys, shows that around 18 per cent of adults in England were drinking at “increasing or higher risk levels” in the three months to the end of October last year, equating to eight million people.

This figure is around six per cent higher than in February 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic hit, when 12.4 per cent (around six million people) drank at these levels. In October 2019, the figure was even lower at 11.9 per cent (around five million people).

Professor Julia Sinclair, chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that the switch to drinking at home was partly to blame for the rise, with drinking sessions sometimes lasting several hours longer than they would in a pub.

Speaking to the PA News Agency, Prof Sinclair said the latest data also revealed that people were still coping with uncertainty and anxiety caused by the pandemic, while some had formed habits involving alcohol.

She said: “Sometimes with alcohol, we forget that for some people there is a huge amount of trauma behind it all but, actually, for other people, it’s just habitual use of an addictive product. Some habits are now getting ingrained.”

Figures from the surveys, which were conducted on at least 1,700 people on a monthly basis, also showed that a quarter of adult men (around 5.5 million people) were drinking at “increasing or higher risk levels” in the three months to the end of October.

This was significantly higher than the 17.8 per cent (around four million people) recorded in February 2020 and was also the joint highest figure in the dataset.

Although fewer women were drinking at the same levels, there was also an increase with 10.1 per cent (around 2.3 million people) drinking more compared to 7.3 per cent (around 1.6 million people) in February 2020.

Prof Sinclair said that work carried out with the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group found that the “best case scenario would be that suddenly everyone goes back to drinking as they were doing at 2019”.

However, experts have “sort of discounted that because people aren’t going to do that”, she added.

“People won’t just suddenly flip back to where they were – none of us suddenly flips back.

“What we’re going to see is that some people who were perhaps drinking at a higher risk but weren’t physically dependent will have pushed themselves into being physically dependent, and they’re not the group who can suddenly wind back from this,” Prof Sinclair explained.

“What was really clear was that just even nine months of drinking, as we saw in 2020 (first year of the pandemic), was enough to push a whole load of people over the edge,” she said, adding that some people who never used to drink except socially are not drinking regularly at home.

Drinking at home around other people who also drink can result in “collusion” when it comes to alcohol consumption.

“It’s really quite unusual to have, within a partnership, one person who drinks a lot and one person who drinks a little,” Prof Sinclair said.

“It’s ‘Should we open another bottle?’ ‘Yeah, let’s open another bottle.’ It’s that kind of supporting each other in your worser decisions… and that’s the trouble with alcohol, the reinforcing effect of alcohol, where you often have one glass and think, ‘Oh that was nice, I’ll have another one’, and by the time you’ve had another one, you think, ‘I’ll have another one’.”

The NHS recommendation is that adults consume no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, equivalent to six pints of beer or 10 small glasses of wine.

People who drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week regularly could be at risk of developing heart disease, liver disease, brain damage, damage to the nervous system, and cancers of the mouth, throat and breast, according to the health service.

Additional reporting by PA

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