Alcohol deaths in England at record high after 6 per cent rise in a year, NHS data shows

One hospital admission every 30 seconds related to alcohol as experts call for end to treatment cuts and curbs on affordability

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Tuesday 05 February 2019 22:03 GMT
Daily glass of wine increases risk of early death by 20 per cent, study shows

The number of people in England who died because of alcohol last year is at its highest level since records began, it has emerged, as the NHS warns someone is admitted to hospital every 30 seconds where drinking was a factor.

There were 5,843 deaths in 2017 where alcohol was the primary cause, with liver disease accounting for around 80 per cent of these, NHS figures show.

This is a rise of more than 6 per cent on the year before, and an increase of 17 per cent in a decade.

“Unfortunately a new record has been set for the number of people dying as a result of alcohol,” Ian Hamilton, a researcher in addiction from York University, told The Independent, with most of these people dying “decades before they should”.

While the numbers drinking to unsafe levels have dropped – with just 21 per cent drinking more than the recommended 14 units a week – over-40s are drinking more and account for 80 per cent of deaths.

The report, compiled by NHS Digital, uses health service data and Office of National Statistics figures first published in December for the whole of the UK.

It confirms that deaths are the highest since record began in 2001, with 2016 the second highest year and previous peaks in 2014, 2011 and 2008.

The NHS report also shows there were more than 1.2 million hospital admissions in 2017-18 where alcohol played a role – roughly two a minute.

Case study

‘I blamed myself for so long for my mother’s drinking’

Bethan says her mother Jayne was a “down to earth and incredibly kind-hearted woman”, but growing up they lived with the mood swings and hallucinations her mother’s alcohol dependence brought – along with “constant heart-wrenching guilt”.

“My mum’s drinking got progressively worse during my high school years. I would walk home from school every day wondering what I was coming home to.

“I blamed myself for so long for her drinking; my biggest mistake growing up was taking it all too personally.”

Jayne was one of the thousands who died in 2017 as a result of alcohol dependence. Bethan said specialist support needed to be much more available to help sufferers turn their lives around and take the burden off their families.

“Growing up with an alcohol-dependent mother was difficult – but losing her to it was even worse,” Bethan added.

“There are no words to explain the heartache of watching your mum take her last breath in front of your eyes and look at you for the very last time.”

There were more than 338,000 admissions where alcohol-related disease or injury was the primary reason for the admission – as opposed to, for example, a diabetic complication where alcohol was a factor. This is an increase of 15 per cent increase from 2007-08.

However, alcohol is more affordable than ever, and numbers being treated for alcohol problems fell to 76,000 in 2017-18, down 6 per cent on the previous year – as successive cuts to public health funding have made access harder.

While harmful drinking has decreased overall, this varies greatly depending on age and economic factors. Well-off households are twice as likely to be drinking over the recommended 14 units a week as those on the lower end of the income scale – 27 per cent compared with 15 per cent.

However, alcohol-related deaths were disproportionately higher among those in the most deprived areas.

“In 2017, 78 per cent of deaths due to alcohol were amongst those between 40 and 69 years of age,” said Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Change UK. “This suggests that the heavier drinking among older people is starting to take a toll.”

For death rates to improve across all groups, he said, there needed to be adequate funding for alcohol treatment services, which are proven to help people tackle their dependence but which have been “relentlessly cut in recent years”.

Dr Piper added that there also needed to be the removal of arbitrary age restrictions on treatment, often denying older people, and he called for the publication of the government’s promised alcohol strategy.

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A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Robust government action has led to a fall in alcohol consumption in recent years – but we remain committed to tackling alcohol-related harms through taxation, pricing and protecting the innocent victims of addiction such as children of alcoholics.

“Prevention is at the heart of our bold plans to secure the future of the NHS, as outlined in the NHS long-term plan, and comes alongside the £3bn we are giving to councils to fund public health services this year including drug, alcohol and sexual health services.”

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