Alarming rise in alcohol-related deaths in North East amid concerns of harmful drinking during covid pandemic

There are fears the pandemic has seen a rise in harmful drinking.There are fears the pandemic has seen a rise in harmful drinking.
There are fears the pandemic has seen a rise in harmful drinking.
Alcohol deaths in the North East rose by more than 15% in 2020, new figures show, amid fears of increased levels of harmful drinking during the pandemic.

Provisional figures released this week by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reveal the alarming spike in the first nine months of 2020 in the region, which was already suffering from the highest rates before the pandemic.

From January to September 2019, 331 people in the North East died from conditions 100% attributable to their alcohol consumption, many of them from alcoholic liver disease. In 2020, that figure increased to 382 over the same period.

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According to Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, these figures could be the tip of an iceberg.

“Surveys show that since the start of the pandemic many drinkers are turning to alcohol to cope – and it is heavier drinkers who are drinking even more,” said director Colin Shevills.

“These death figures are extremely worrying – it is an early warning that we could have serious problems in both the short and long term if the Government doesn’t take action now to turn back the tide of alcohol harm.

“My fear is that in the coming years we will not only see increases in deaths from liver disease, but there will also be increases in conditions such as alcohol-related cancers and heart disease.

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“Short-term, local authorities need increased sustainable investment so that they can provide the help that dependent drinkers need. Longer term, the Government needs to recognise that without tackling the affordability, availability and irresponsible marketing of alcohol as part of a new, evidence-based alcohol strategy, lives will be lost and health inequalities will continue to grow.”

The Local Government Association, which represents councils, echoed the call for clarity on funding, with Cllr Ian Hudspeth, the chairman of its community wellbeing board, saying: “Councils are doing all they can to help keep people healthy throughout their lives and reduce pressure on the NHS and social care, particularly during the pandemic, but need certainty over their individual public health grants for next year as soon as possible.”

The worrying picture in the North East mirrors what has been seen nationally, with the provisional data for England and Wales showing there were 5,460 deaths related to alcohol-specific causes in the first three quarters of 2020, a 16.4% increase compared with the same period the previous year.

The alcohol-specific death rate reached its highest peak since this data series began in 2001 at 12.8 deaths per 100,000 people.

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When comparing the same quarter across the years, the ONS said the quarter one rate was statistically similar to those in previous years, but then rates in quarter two and three were statistically significantly higher than in any other year back to 2001.

However, Ben Humberstone, deputy director of health analysis and life events at the ONS, said: “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.”

Figures for individual local authorities are not available in this data, which are based on provisional death registrations. It is possible the numbers could change when the data are finalised in late 2021 in the ONS’ next annual publication of alcohol-specific deaths.

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