England has seen an unprecedented yearly increase in deaths due to alcohol during the Covid-19 pandemic, driven by excessive alcohol consumption at home, Public Health England (PHE) has said, in a fresh report.
Almost 7,000 people died from alcohol-specific diseases in 2020, the UK government said on Thursday, citing new data published by the PHE. The annual number of such deaths skyrocketed by more than 1,100 – or 20% – in the last year, compared to the previous year, in one of the biggest annual increases, it added.
Alcoholic liver disease was the most widespread cause among all of the alcohol-related deaths in England last year, accounting for over 80% of such cases. However, fatalities from mental and behavioural disorders caused by alcohol consumption also rose by more than 10% over the same period, and deaths from alcohol poisoning increased by over 15% between 2019 and 2020.
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“Liver disease is currently the second leading cause of premature death in people of working age and this is only set to get worse if the COVID-19 pandemic results in a long-term increase in drinking,” Rosanna O’Connor, the Director of Drugs, Alcohol, Tobacco and Justice at PHE, said.
Repeated lockdowns forced pubs, clubs and restaurants across England to stay closed for some 31 weeks between March 2020 and March 2021, the UK government said, noting that this did not lead to a drop in alcohol consumption.
In fact, some people in England started drinking even more during the pandemic.
Shops and supermarkets sold more than 12.6 million extra litres of alcohol in the financial year between 2020 and 2021. That amounted to a more-than-24% increase on the previous financial year, the government’s press release said, citing figures from a consumer purchasing panel.
Those who usually bought most alcohol before the Covid-19 crisis were also the ones who drastically increased their alcohol purchases during the epidemic, the data also suggested.
“Our research suggests that lockdown has affected heavy drinkers the most and that they are drinking more,” O’Connor said. Those in the heaviest buying group – which comprises roughly one-fifth of all those buying alcohol in England – bought 5.3 million more litres of alcohol in 2020 than in 2019.
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Between March 2020 and March 2021, the number of people admitting they have been drinking at higher-risk levels rose by nearly 60%.
“We all know someone who is at risk of becoming one of these statistics – more than 1 in 5 adults in the UK drink alcohol in a way that could harm their liver,” Pamela Healy, the CEO of the British Liver Trust, said.
“Stress, loneliness and the lack of access to alcohol support services have resulted in many people drinking more alcohol and putting their livers at risk,” Healy added, pointing to the fact that those “from the most deprived areas of the country” are “disproportionately” affected. The PHE statistics shows that around one third of all alcohol-related deaths occurred among the most deprived 20% of the population.
British health authorities consider drinking 50 UK alcohol units per week to be a dangerous level for men, and 35 for women. That roughly equals 0.5 litres or 17 US fluid ounces of pure alcohol per week for men and 0.35 litres or 11.9 US fluid ounces for women. One unit is “around the amount of alcohol the average adult can process in an hour,” according to the UK’s National Health Service.
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