Alcohol deaths hit record high amid pandemic, 'deeply worrying' statistics show

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Red wine being poured into a stem glass at the table.
High-risk drinking may have worsened amid the coronavirus outbreak. (Stock, Getty Images)

Alcohol-related deaths have hit a new high amid the coronavirus pandemic, “deeply worrying” statistics have revealed.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show 5,460 related fatalities were registered in England and Wales from January to September 2020, a 16% increase on the same nine months the year before.

The 2020 death toll is the highest since records began in 2001.

One expert has pointed out these fatalities were likely due to already high-risk drinkers increasing their consumption, exacerbating relatively slow-onset conditions like alcohol-related liver disease.

Read more: ‘High-risk’ drinking increased in first lockdown

Fears around catching the coronavirus may also have put people off seeking help for the disease, which is often a medical emergency, she added.

3D Illustration Concept of Human Internal Digestive Organ Liver Anatomy
The liver is one of the most forgiving organs in the body, however, excessive alcohol consumption can damage it beyond repair. (Stock, Getty Images)

“These figures for alcohol related deaths are deeply worrying, but sadly not unexpected,” said Professor Linda Bauld from the University of Edinburgh.

“Surveys from earlier in the pandemic suggested while some people had reduced their alcohol consumption or abstained during the stay at home measures introduced in the spring of 2020, others were drinking more.

“Those who increased their consumption were already more regular drinkers.

“Heavier drinking over several weeks or months on top of existing alcohol harms will have contributed to this rise in deaths.”

Read more: ICU staff ‘meet threshold’ for problem drinking amid pandemic

In-person support groups have also been suspended at various points since the coronavirus emerged at the end of 2019.

Speaking of the ONS data, Professor Bauld added: “These are preventable excess deaths, and are a stark reminder there are indirect harms from this pandemic beyond the immediate threat to health and life from COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus].

“As we look ahead, it is going to be essential to remember public health is not just about dealing with infectious diseases.

“As part of the country’s path out of the current crisis, we must retain a focus on population and individual level policies and interventions to address alcohol harms.”

The ONS data further show alcohol-related deaths peaked in the first three months of 2020, with 12.8 fatalities per 100,000 people.

The death rate remained at this level until September, spanning the UK’s first lockdown, which was introduced on 23 March.

Around twice as many men died from alcohol misuse as women during this time, similar to what has been observed before.

“Because of the way alcohol-specific deaths are defined, most of these deaths were as a result of chronic health conditions caused by longer term higher risk or dependent drinking,” said Dr Sadie Boniface from King’s College London.

“Around four in every five alcohol-specific deaths is from alcoholic liver disease.

Read more: Small glass of alcohol a day raises risk of irregular heartbeat by 16%

“This means the increase is not explained by people who previously drank at lower risk levels increasing their consumption during the pandemic.

“Reasons behind the increase in the first nine months of 2020 are likely to include further increases in consumption among people who were already drinking at higher risk or dependent levels for some time, but also around access to healthcare.

“For example, liver disease often presents as an emergency, but people may have been frightened to go to A&E because of the virus.

“Last year there was a reduction in emergency presentations and admissions across the board, and addiction treatment data also showed fewer new clients starting treatment last summer.”

Watch: Alcohol can cause irregular heart beat

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