Provisional data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for the first three quarters of 2020 show 5,460 deaths related to alcohol-specific causes, up more than 16 per cent on the same nine-month period in 2019.
While rates for Q1 are statistically similar to previous years, Q2 and Q3 show the highest increases since 2001, say ONS, with death rates increasing significantly for 30-49-year-olds in Q2 and 40-69-year-olds in Q3.
The provisional figures were published within hours of ONS’ official figures for 2019, which showed a total of 7,565 deaths related to alcohol-specific causes, the second highest figure since records began 20 years ago. Death rates were highest in the 55 to 64 age range, with the male death rate consistently more than double that for females for the last two decades. Alcoholic liver disease accounted for almost 78 per cent of fatalities.
Overall, death rates had remained ‘stable’ in recent years, says ONS, with 7,551 fatalities recorded in 2018. However, the current rate is far higher than that recorded at the beginning of ONS’ data time series – 11.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2019 compared to 10.6 in 2001.
The figures only relate to conditions where a death is a ‘direct consequence’ of alcohol misuse, with ‘significant’ increases in these deaths among 55-79-year-olds over the past two decades. ‘Given that the definition of alcohol-specific deaths includes mostly chronic conditions, such as alcoholic liver disease, the increased rates in the older age groups may be a consequence of misuse of alcohol that began years, or even decades, earlier,’ says ONS. ‘A third of alcohol-specific deaths in those aged under 30 years were caused by alcoholic liver disease in 2019, while more than three-quarters of alcohol-specific deaths in those aged over 30 years were from this condition.’ The proportion of alcohol-specific deaths as a result of mental or behavioural disorders, meanwhile, is almost 50 per cent among people in their mid to late 80s, whereas accidental alcohol poisoning accounts for half of alcohol-specific deaths among 20-24-year-olds but just 2.4 per cent among over-65s.
As is the case with drug-related deaths, rates were highest in the most deprived areas. For the sixth year running, England’s highest alcohol-specific death rates were seen in the North East – 16.6 deaths per 100,000, more than double London’s rate of 7.9.
Commenting on the provisional 2020 figures, deputy director of health analysis and life events at ONS, Ben Humberstone, said, ‘Today’s data shows that in the first three quarters of 2020, alcohol-specific deaths in England and Wales reached the highest level since the beginning of our data series, with April to September – during and after the first lockdown – seeing higher rates compared to the same period in previous years. The reasons for this are complex, and it will take time before the impact the pandemic has had on alcohol-specific deaths is fully understood.’
‘Sadly, these statistics show the impact of what happens when the majority of people with an issue with alcohol aren’t accessing treatment or support, especially in a country with such a heavy drinking culture as the UK,’ said head of the Drink Wise, Age Well programme at With You (We Are With You) Julie Breslin. ‘While it’s hard to pin-point the exact reasons behind the rise, front-line services have seen how the social isolation and anxiety of living through a pandemic has led to an increase in potentially harmful drinking. At the same time people are understandably concerned about placing extra strain on health services at the current time, with many struggling alone. This picture is particularly acute for older adults, with people aged between 55 and 64 years old most likely to die of an alcohol-related cause. Many are unable to see their loved ones or friends, and are drinking more as a way to cope with increased loneliness, isolation and anxiety.’
“Harmful alcohol use is killing people across the UK at an alarming rate, and the continued rise in numbers show that much more needs to be done to address this on-going crisis,’ added Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore. ‘The scale of loss of life is a tragedy and urgent action is required to prevent these needless deaths. The future impact of the pandemic on addiction and mental health makes action now all the more vital.
Quarterly alcohol-specific deaths in England and Wales: 2001 to 2019 registrations and Quarter 1 to Quarter 3 2020 provisional registrations at www.ons.gov.uk
Alcohol specific deaths in the UK: registered in 2109 at www.ons.gov.uk