Pandemic drinking patterns will ‘cast long shadow’ on health, say two studies

Heavier drinking patterns that started during the COVID lockdowns could lead to 25,000 additional deaths and more than 970,000 hospital admissions over the next 20 years, says an NHS-commissioned report from the University of Sheffield.

Another report, by the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS), predicts up to 9,000 premature deaths by 2035. 

drinking on a sofa
The heaviest drinkers increased their consumption

While many people drinking at moderate levels cut their alcohol intake during the pandemic, the heaviest drinkers increased their consumption and with it the risk of alcohol-related harm. Alcohol-specific deaths in England rose by 20 per cent between 2019 and 2020, while the impact of the pandemic on health services generally could mean other aspects of alcohol harm ‘worsen but become less visible’, says IAS, with the long-term indirect effect of the pandemic on alcohol harm unknown. 

Both documents state that there will be a substantial increase in health harms and pressure on the NHS even if consumption patterns return to pre-pandemic levels. However, if heavier drinking levels persist the cost to the NHS could be more than £5bn, says the University of Sheffield.   

The IAS study looked at three different scenarios for future alcohol consumption and their impact on nine of the main alcohol-related diseases, including liver disease, high blood pressure, stroke and six forms of cancer. The model projected between 2,860 and 147,892 additional cases of the nine diseases by 2035, with between 2,431 and 9,914 extra premature deaths. This would ‘impact the less well-off in society the most’, the report adds, and cost the NHS up to £1.2bn. The report renews the call for a new alcohol strategy, along with more funding for treatment and support ‘over and above’ that promised in the recent drug strategy. Alcohol marketing regulation needs to be tightened to support the most vulnerable, it adds, while ‘protecting and improving public health’ should become an objective in the English licensing system.

University of Sheffield Colin Angus
University of Sheffield study lead Colin Angus

‘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,’ said University of Sheffield study lead Colin Angus.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.’

‘The pandemic has been bad for alcohol harm: deaths from alcohol have reached record levels, and inequalities have widened,’ added head of research at IAS Dr Sadie Boniface. ‘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.’


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