Deaths in England from liver disease linked to excessive drinking jumped by an unprecedented 21% last year, as bored consumers drank more alcohol at home during the pandemic, official data showed today.
Pubs, clubs and restaurants were closed for most of the year, but the total volume of alcohol sold stayed the same, suggesting people switched to drinking at home instead, Public Health England (PHE) said.
Consumer data showed a 24% increase in the amount of alcohol sold in shops and supermarkets during the year to the end of March 2021, compared with the previous 12 months, reports the BBC.
“Our research suggests that lockdown has affected heavy drinkers the most and that they are drinking more,” Rosanna O’Connor, PHE’s director of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and justice, said in a statement.
Liver disease was the second-biggest cause of premature death for British adults of working age, she added.
The proportion of people who admitted drinking at what British health authorities consider dangerous levels – 50 UK units a week for men, and 35 for women – was nearly 60% higher in March 2021 than in March 2020, before the first lockdown.
One UK unit of alcohol is equivalent to 10ml of pure alcohol, with around 10 units in a typical bottle of wine and two to three units in a pint of beer.
The authors say the rate of alcohol-specific deaths was highest and rose most during 2020 among more deprived communities.
The report reveals that sales of alcohol by volume in settings such as supermarkets increased by 25% in England between 2019 and 2020, equal to an extra 686 million litres, according to data from barcode scanning.
O’Connor said that tackling harmful drinking must be an essential part of the Covid recovery plan, according to The Guardian.
“Liver disease is currently the second leading cause of premature death in people of working age and this is only set to get worse if the Covid pandemic results in a long-term increase in drinking,” she said.
Rajiv Jalan, a professor of hepatology at UCL Medical School, who was not involved in the report, said the rise in deaths from alcoholic liver disease was startling but not unexpected given that the burden of the disease in the UK is very high, and that the report suggests there has been a rise in drinking among those most likely to be affected.
“They have now had this second hit from excessive binge drinking and this is on the background of existing liver disease which leads to the development of a condition called acute-on-chronic liver failure that is known to be associated with a high risk of death,” he said.
More must be done to tackle alcohol-related liver disease, he said, suggesting England should follow Scotland’s example: “The simplest intervention would be to introduce a minimum price for alcohol.”