Shifts in alcohol consumption during the pandemic could lead to thousands of extra deaths in England
- Two new studies from the University of Sheffield and Institute of Alcohol Studies/HealthLumen show the impact of pandemic-related changes in alcohol consumption on health outcomes
- Lighter drinkers decreased their consumption on average during the pandemic, but heavy drinkers increased their alcohol intake
- Both studies estimate substantial increases in alcohol-related harms and pressure on the NHS, even if drinking patterns were to return to pre-pandemic patterns from 2022 onwards
- If the increase in heavier drinkers’ consumption persists in the longer term, then the picture is considerably worse, with both studies estimating hundreds of thousands of additional cases of alcohol-related diseases and thousands of extra deaths as a result
- Both studies find that the increases in alcohol harm disproportionately falls on the least well-off in society, further widening inequalities
Changes in alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to lead to thousands of additional cases of disease, premature deaths and hospital admissions, costing the NHS billions.
Moderate drinkers consumed less alcohol during the pandemic, whereas heavy drinkers consumed more.
Two separate modelling studies, both released today (26 July 2022), looked at these shifts in drinking during the pandemic and modelled the long-term health impacts of several different scenarios for how these changes might develop in the future.
The University of Sheffield’s NHS-commissioned report examined how alcohol-related hospitalisations and deaths are likely to increase over a longer period of 20 years. The study found that with their worst-case scenario there will be 972,382 additional hospital admissions and 25,192 additional deaths, at a cost of £5.2 billion.
In their NIHR-funded research, the Institute of Alcohol Studies and non-communicable disease modelling specialists HealthLumen looked at additional alcohol-related diseases, deaths, and NHS costs. If drinking does not to return to pre-pandemic patterns, they projected that by 2035 there will be 147,892 additional cases of nine alcohol-related diseases – such as liver cirrhosis and breast cancer – and 9,914 additional premature deaths, costing the NHS £1.2 billion.
Colin Angus, Senior Research Fellow who led the University of Sheffield study, said: “Even in our best-case scenario, where drinking behaviour returns to pre-pandemic levels in 2022, we estimate an additional 42,677 alcohol-attributable hospital admissions and 1,830 deaths over 20 years.
“These figures highlight that the pandemic’s impact on our drinking behaviour is likely to cast a long shadow on our health and paint a worrying picture at a time when NHS services are already under huge pressure due to treatment backlogs.”
IAS’ Head of Research, Dr Sadie Boniface, said: “The pandemic has been bad for alcohol harm: deaths from alcohol have reached record levels, and inequalities have widened. Our results look ahead to the longer-term health impacts of recent changes in drinking patterns.
“The increases in alcohol harm, lives lost, and costs to the NHS projected in our study are not inevitable. We lack an alcohol strategy and progress on alcohol harm has been limited in recent years in England. This research should act as a ‘wake-up call’ to take alcohol harm seriously as part of recovery planning from the pandemic.”
The researchers warn that as both reports provide a snapshot of a small number of the 200 diseases related to alcohol, the true impact is likely to be far greater. They highlight that the results are consistent with real-world increases in alcoholic liver disease and alcohol-specific deaths that have occurred since the onset of the pandemic.
The studies also highlight that the impacts are not evenly distributed across the population, with heavier drinkers and those in the most deprived areas – who already suffer the highest rates of alcohol harm – expected to be disproportionately affected. With the Government’s impending Health Disparities White Paper, IAS says it must include policies to reduce alcohol harm if it wants to stand any hope of tackling rising health inequality exacerbated by the pandemic.
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