Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations Body Politic

Seeing through the alcohol statistics haze

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 22 February 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1273
  1. Nigel Hawkes, freelance journalist, London
  1. nigel.hawkes1{at}

Changes in the way alcohol related hospital admissions are counted favour the industry

The prime minister’s intervention last week on the misuse of alcohol—“one of the scandals of our society”—was as significant for what it didn’t say as for what it did. There was no mention by David Cameron of the headline grabbing claim that more than a million admissions a year to NHS hospitals in England are attributable to alcohol, a claim that has been chorused regularly by alcohol charities and by the NHS Information Centre over the past couple of years (BMJ 2010;341:c4790, doi:10.1136/bmj.c4790).

Instead Mr Cameron quoted the not quite so awe inspiring figure of 200 000 such admissions a year. Behind this change lies a little noticed shift in the way that alcohol related admissions are to be counted. Although it sounds small, its effect on numbers and the costs of treating them are large. I understand that it emerged as a result of discussions in the Department of Health’s much derided “responsibility deal,” which brings together manufacturers, retailers, and others to try to control alcohol misuse (BMJ 2011;342:d4166, doi:10.1136/bmj.d4166).

Briefly, the one million plus figure is calculated from all admissions in which either the primary or a secondary diagnosis is wholly or partially attributable to drink. A patient may be admitted …

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