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Alcoholic liver deaths increased by 21% during year of the pandemic

Increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic, particularly amongst heavy drinkers, is likely driving an unprecedented acceleration in alcoholic liver disease deaths.

Public Health England (PHE) yesterday published the trends in alcohol consumption and harm since the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The findings show an increase in total alcohol-specific deaths, driven by an unprecedented annual increase in alcoholic liver disease deaths above levels seen pre-pandemic.

Despite pubs, clubs and restaurants closing for approximately 31 weeks during the national lockdowns, the total amount of alcohol released for sale (meaning that tax has been paid and it is available to be bought) during the pandemic was still similar to the pre-pandemic years which suggests people were drinking more at home.

Data from a consumer purchasing panel show that in shops and supermarkets just over 12.6 million extra litres of alcohol were sold in the financial year 2020 to 2021 compared to 2019 to 2020 (a 24.4% increase).

Those that typically bought the most alcohol pre-pandemic bought a lot more once the first lockdown happened. When adult buyers were spilt into 5 equal sized groups based on their level of purchasing in the 2 years before the first lockdown, the heaviest buying group increased their buying by 5.3 million litres of alcohol compared to 2019 to 2020 (an increase of 14.3%).

The findings reflect the survey data published on PHE’s Wider Impacts of COVID-19 on Health (WICH) dashboard that also shows an increase in increasing and higher risk drinking following the first national lockdown. This was maintained over much of 2020, but from 2021 onwards shows signs of returning to levels more similar to before the pandemic.

Comparing March 2020 and March 2021, there was a 58.6% increase of people reporting that they are drinking at increasing and higher-risk levels (50 units a week for men, 35 units a week for women).

Other published reports analysing surveys suggest that it is those drinking the heaviest before the pandemic that are more likely to report increasing their drinking.

The increased consumption of alcohol during the pandemic has occurred alongside increases in deaths. Alcohol-specific deaths increased by 20.0% in 2020 (from 5,819 in 2019 to 6,983) and alcoholic liver disease accounted for just over 80.3% of all deaths in 2020. There was a rapid increase in the number of alcoholic liver deaths, rising by 20.8% between 2019 and 2020, compared to a rise of 2.9% between 2018 and 2019.

Other findings include:

  • deaths from mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol increased by 10.8% between 2019 and 2020 (compared to a 1.1% increase between 2018 and 2019), but hospital admissions were down
  • deaths from alcohol poisoning increased by 15.4% between 2019 and 2020 (compared to a decrease of 4.5% between 2018 and 2019), but hospital admissions were down
  • 33.0% of all alcohol-specific deaths occurred in the most deprived 20%
  • the North East has the biggest increase in death rate out of all regions, reaching a peak rate of 28.4 deaths per 100,000 population in July 2020 (79.7% higher than the baseline rate in 2018 and 2019 combined)
  • the rate of unplanned hospital admissions per 100,000 population for alcoholic liver disease increased by 3.2% between 2019 and 2020, though the rate of total alcohol-specific admissions decreased by 3.2% (which mirrors the direction of all hospital admissions irrespective of cause)

Rosanna O’Connor, Director of Drugs, Alcohol, Tobacco and Justice at PHE, yesterday said:

Our research suggests that lockdown has affected heavy drinkers the most and that they are drinking more.

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.

Tackling harmful drinking must be an essential part of the COVID-19 recovery plan.

If you’re worried about your drinking, speak with your GP or get in touch with your local alcohol services.

Minister for Public Health, Jo Churchill, yesterday said:

This evidence of increased alcohol-related harm during the pandemic is deeply concerning. I am committed to addressing this and widening the availability of treatment services at both a local and national level.

The new Office for Health Promotion will spearhead our efforts to improve treatment and level up outcomes.

Over the last year, providers have continued to support and treat people misusing alcohol and we are backing local authorities, who know their communities best, with over £3.3 billion in 2021 to 2022 to spend on public health services including alcohol treatment.

Pamela Healy OBE, Chief Executive of the British Liver Trust, yesterday said:

These findings are very concerning but, sadly, they mirror what we have been hearing on our helpline throughout the pandemic. 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. Alarmingly, these new statistics show that those who come from the most deprived areas of the country are also disproportionately affected.

COVID-19 restrictions may have eased but now we’re starting to see the long-term effects of the pandemic in other areas of public health. We need urgent action to tackle the complex underlying causes of excess alcohol consumption to avoid a liver disease epidemic in the future.

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 way that could harm their liver. You can find out if you’re at risk by taking the British Liver Trust’s online quiz.

Available resources

For those that are worried about their drinking, their GP should be the first port of call. They will be able to provide confidential advice and refer on to the local treatment service as appropriate.

General advice on available support and tips for cutting down can be found on the NHS website and through our Better Health resources.

People can find their local alcohol and drug treatment service through the NHS website directory

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