News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Heavy drinking costs the NHS £1.7bn a year, says report

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.327.7417.701 (Published 25 September 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:701
  1. Roger Dobson
  1. Abergavenny

    Treating illnesses and injuries caused by alcohol misuse is costing the NHS up to £1.7bn ($2.8bn; €2.4bn) a year, according to a new report.

    Heavy drinking is resulting in an increasing number of premature deaths, health problems, social disorder, and injuries, says the report, which says that in the United Kingdom up to 40% of men's drinking sessions can be classed as binge drinking.

    But the total costs, including the costs of absenteeism, alcohol related crime, and human suffering, may be as high as £20bn–almost three times the estimated £7bn in excise duty on alcohol that the government receives each year.

    The report, produced by the prime minister's Strategy Unit, shows that around 35% of all attendances in emergency departments may be due to alcohol, costing more than £500m a year.

    “A study commissioned for this analysis showed that alcohol places a very significant burden on A&E [accident and emergency] departments at peak times: 41% of all attendees were positive for alcohol consumption; 14% were intoxicated; and 43% were identified as problem users,” says the report.

    In addition, up to 150 000 hospital admissions each year are related to alcohol misuse, and some 22 000 people die prematurely, although the report points out that alcohol probably prevents about the same number of deaths in elderly people by reducing the risk of coronary heart disease. The report says that alcohol misuse accounts for nearly 10% of the disease burden in developed countries.

    Since the middle of the last century alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom has been rising, and the report says that in 2001 consumption was 8.6 litres of pure alcohol per person, a 121% increase from the 1951 figure. Most of this increase has been due to growing consumption of wine, which increased from 3.7 litres per person in 1970 to 21.6 litres in 2000.

    Historically, the countries with the heaviest drinking have been the wine producing countries, but consumption there has mostly been falling, says the report. “In the UK, by contrast, consumption is still rising. If present trends continue, the UK would rise to near the top of the consumption league within the next 10 years.”

    It adds that almost one in three adult men and nearly one in five women now exceed the recommended guidelines of 21 and 14 units a week (21 units is equivalent to 10.5 pints of bitter, and 14 units to 14 small glasses of wine).

    It says that the number of women drinking above the recommended guidelines has risen by over half in the last 15 years, and that one in 100 pregnant women drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week, although the Department of Health recommends only 1-2 units a week. British teenagers are among the heaviest teenage drinkers in Europe.

    The report also raises concerns about binge drinking: “Whereas regular, daily, drinking is most common in Southern Europe, the quantity consumed per drinking occasion is highest in the UK and Northern Europe,” it says.

    The Interim Analytical Report of the national alcohol harm reduction strategy is at www.number10.gov.uk/files/pdf/interim_report.pdf

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