Public support for action on alcohol as liver disease rises
Balance has warned of a “tipping point” for alcohol harm after new figures show liver disease has risen nearly a fifth in a year – with the highest rates in the North East.
It comes as a group of charities and health organisations launch a new cross-party manifesto in Parliament today calling on the government to commit to an evidence-based strategy to tackle the growing public health crisis caused by alcohol. The Alcohol Health Alliance also released the findings of a major survey showing public support is high for more action nationally on alcohol nationally and in the North East.
Latest Liver Disease Profiles for England make grim reading for the North East showing the number of admissions to hospital where the primary diagnosis was liver disease rose by 22.0% in the year ending 2022 – from 82,290 compared to 67,458 in the year ending 2021 (the first full year of the COVID-19 pandemic).
Rates of liver disease admissions to hospital are highest in the north of England with the North East having the highest rate of 190.1 per 100,000 people in the year ending 2022. The North East also has the highest rate of hospital admissions for alcoholic liver disease. Since 1970, deaths due to liver disease have increased by 400%.
The Alcohol Health Alliance is releasing today (Tues 11 July) a new report which includes the results of a major survey of over 12,000 adults into how the public currently view action on alcohol (1). The survey found that among adults in the North East:
- 66% support a health warning on all alcohol advertising to communicate the risks associated with drinking alcohol
- 63% would support ensuring that alcohol display and promotion in shops and supermarkets is only visible to people intending to browse or purchase alcohol
- 70% support all government health policy should be protected from the influence of the alcohol industry and its representatives
- 75% think it should be legally required to include alcohol units on labels and 52% believe it should contain information on calories and sugar
- 40% of NE adults think the government is not doing enough to reduce harm from alcohol, while only 7% think they are doing too much
- 51% would support no alcohol advertising on TV and radio, 56% no alcohol advertising in cinemas and 52% not allowing alcohol advertising on social media and online
- 50% would support not allowing alcohol companies to sponsor music and cultural events
Under current law, all food and non-alcoholic drinks must display nutritional information, but alcohol products are exempt, despite being linked to seven types of cancer and over 200 illnesses. Alcoholic drinks are only required to display the volume and strength (in ABV) and common allergens.
The report also warns that the estimated cost of alcohol on the UK healthcare system is £8.3 billion annually (2). Predictions show that unless alcohol consumption returns to pre-pandemic levels, by 2034 it will cost the already-stretched NHS in England an additional £1billion (3). Although alcohol harms have increased, sadly the provision of treatment has not: only one in five people with alcohol dependence in England are estimated to be in treatment.(4)
Nationally there were around 980,000 people admitted to hospital or received a secondary diagnosis in 2020-21 due to alcohol. That included around 435,000 from cardiovascular disease, 227,000 mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol and 93,000 due to cancer from alcohol (5).
In the North East around 47% of adults and nearly six out of 10 men who drink are drinking above the low risk guidelines of no more than 14 units a week(6).
Susan Taylor, Head of Alcohol Policy for Balance, said: “These figures are another appalling wake up call. It is clear that the North East suffers the most from alcohol harm and would benefit the most from prevention and action to tackle the price, promotion and availability of alcohol.
“We know there are things we can to reduce the levels – and cost – of alcohol harm on society, and with the right will and leadership, there is a real opportunity to turn the tide of our alcohol harm crisis. Every week that the Government doesn’t take action on this issue, more people will die from alcohol. The need for action and awareness has never been greater. “
Alice Wiseman, the Association of Directors of Public Health’s Policy Lead for Addiction and Director of Public Health for Gateshead, said: “Alcohol is the leading risk factor for death, ill-health, and disability amongst 15–49-year-olds in England alone. It is also a driving factor for health inequalities, with the death rate from alcohol in the most deprived areas twice as high as in the least deprived.
“Most of us have lost someone to cancer or heart disease, but unlike smoking we often overlook the risks of alcohol. We don’t see health information on the product or in national campaigns. Instead we see cheap strong alcohol allowed to destroy health and lives.
“Alcohol is still far too cheap, far too available and far too heavily promoted and we need a comprehensive, evidence-based alcohol strategy to make a real difference.”
The report also sets out aims through an Alcohol Health Alliance Manifesto’ for policymakers, which centres around four focus areas that would have the biggest collective impact on alcohol harm:
- Protect children and support people impacted by alcohol harm
- Empower individuals and build thriving communities
- Strengthen the NHS and frontline services
- Preserve the public purse
1: The findings of this report, unless otherwise stated, were collected through an online survey conducted by YouGov Plc, on behalf of Action on Smoking and Health. The total sample size was 12,271 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 22/02/2023 – 15/03/2023. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). Some figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding
2: The OECD estimates that the costs of alcohol in the UK account for an estimated 3% of health expenditure. OECD (2021) Preventing Harmful Alcohol Use: Key Findings for the United Kingdom. £8.3bn is 3% of £277bn, the figure given for total current health expenditure in 2021 by the ONS. ONS (2022) Healthcare expenditure, UK Health Accounts provisional estimates: 2021.
3: Boniface S, Card-Gowers J, Martin A, Retat L, Webber L (2022). The COVID hangover: Addressing long-term health impacts of changes in alcohol consumption during the pandemic. Institute of Alcohol Studies; July 2022.
4: Public Health England (accessed September 2021). Public health dashboard.
5: Statistics on Alcohol, England 2021: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-alcohol/2021/part-1#estimated-alcohol-related-hospital-admissions-broad-measure