Deaths from alcohol misuse in England and Wales hit 20-year high in 2020

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Deaths directly attributable to alcohol misuse rose dramatically to reach a 20-year high in England and Wales as coronavirus took hold last year, possibly driven by increased consumption by higher-risk drinkers, official data shows.

There were 7,423 alcohol-specific deaths in 2020, up 20% on the previous year and the highest annual death toll since records began in 2001, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said. In population terms the rate rose year-on-year from 11 to 13 per 100,000.

The ONS said alcohol consumption in higher-risk drinkers had risen during the pandemic, and suggested deaths were likely to be concentrated among people with long-term drink problems, including those who had been abstinent but relapsed.

Four out of five alcohol-specific deaths in 2020 – defined as being a direct consequence of alcohol misuse – were from alcoholic liver disease. A further 10% were from mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol use, and 6% accidental alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol harm reduction charities called the figures devastating and urged the government to urgently introduce measures to stop the sale of cheap, high-strength alcohol and improve access to health and addiction treatment.

“Each of these numbers represents a life of an individual cut short by alcohol consumption and a family that has been left in mourning. The future impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on addiction and mental health makes action now all the more critical,” said Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, the chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance.

The rise in the alcohol-specific death rate started in April as the UK entered its first lockdown, increasing sharply each quarter. The death rate in October to December 2020 was 28% higher than the same period the previous year, and the highest recorded rate of any three-month period since 2001.

The figures reflect deeply entrenched health inequalities: the alcohol-specific death rate for men was 4.2 times higher in the most deprived areas, at 34.1 deaths per 100,000, compared with 8.1 in the most affluent areas.

Alcohol deaths among women in the most deprived communities were three times higher at 15 per 100,000, compared with five in the least deprived areas.

Men were far more likely to die of alcohol misuse than women. Death rates were 17.8 per 100,000 for men and 9.7 for women in the final months of 2020, when alcohol-specific deaths peaked.

The ONS cited research suggesting alcohol consumption habits had changed during the pandemic, with both higher levels of reported abstinence compared with the pre-Covid period, and an increasing number of people who said they were drinking more.

The volume of alcohol purchased from food retailers has risen during the pandemic, though it is not yet clear whether this was counterbalanced by the reduction in drinking in pubs and bars.

“While it is clear that alcohol consumption in higher-risk drinkers has increased during the pandemic, it will take time before the impact of this on mortality is fully understood,” the ONS said.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting everyone’s mental and physical wellbeing through the pandemic and we encourage anyone who is struggling to come forward for help.”

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