The content of this website is intended for healthcare professionals only

Alcohol-related deaths likely to rise, warn experts

England’s alcohol deaths will rise in contrast to rest of UK

Adrian O'Dowd

Thursday, 07 April 2016

The number of alcohol-related deaths are most likely to increase in England while they fall across the rest of the UK due to different policies, according to an expert analysis* published today in The BMJ.

Leading experts in the field Nick Sheron and Ian Gilmore warn in the analysis that while death rates in England have fallen for six years when alcohol duty was increased, they could easily now rise as a result of the government’s decision to cut taxes on alcohol and peoples’ incomes rise.

At the same time, the number of alcohol-related deaths are likely to continue decreasing in Scotland if legislation there on minimum unit pricing for alcoholic drinks is implemented.

Professor Sheron, head of clinical hepatology at University of Southampton, and Professor Gilmore of the University of Liverpool and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said that if the Scottish legislation was passed, it could result in an “interesting and unusual situation” whereby cheap alcohol was constrained by minimum pricing in Scotland.

This policy approach could be swiftly followed by Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Wales all of which have unveiled plans for minimum unit pricing legislation, and the number of alcohol-related deaths would decrease in these countries as a result.

In England, however, the situation was unlikely to improve because “incomes are likely to outstrip changes in alcohol taxation” and the “relentless rise” of alcohol-related deaths was likely to resume.

The predictions were based on their analysis of trends in alcohol-related harm in the context of changes in the alcohol marketplace, in turn driven by changes in fiscal policy.

The professors argue that alcohol-related deaths are related to the level of taxation.

There was a threefold increase in the number of alcohol-related deaths between 1980 and 2008 in England and Wales, “probably driven by the increased affordability and availability of strong alcohol”, they said.

As wages increased and alcohol taxation was reduced, by 2008 it was possible to buy almost four bottles of vodka for the price of one bottle in 1980.

In the UK, alcohol sales increased from around 400 million litres in the early 1980s, peaking at 567 million litres in 2008.

During this time, alcohol-related deaths in England and Wales tripled from 2,314 in 1980, to 7,312 in 2008, with most deaths being liver related.

Since 2008, deaths had fallen slightly most likely due to of economic factors affecting alcohol consumption of heavy drinkers, such as the economic recession and 2% duty escalator.

From 2007-08 onwards, the affordability of wine fell by 54%, spirits 50%, cider 27%, and beer 22%, whereas household incomes fell by only 9.5%.

The authors said that of the various economic factors influencing alcohol consumption, the 2% duty escalator had the greatest effect.

However, following a “fierce campaign of lobbying” by the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, the duty escalator was dropped in 2014, they said.

Furthermore, incomes were starting to rise again, and alcohol duty was cut by a further 2% for spirits and cheap cider. Therefore, the authors predicted the “relentless rise” of alcohol deaths in England once again.

*Sheron, N et al. Effect of policy, economics, and the changing alcohol marketplace on alcohol related deaths in England and Wales. The BMJ, 29 March 2016; 353. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.i1860

Registered in England and Wales. Reg No. 2530185. c/o Wilmington plc, 5th Floor, 10 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 8QS. Reg No. 30158470