As the ‘public health’ hysteria over alcohol and the clamour for minimum pricing in England continues, it’s useful to get an overview of the issues by looking at some straight statistics. I increasingly think that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is an oasis of calm objectivity in a sea of opinionated, emotionalised subjectivity emanating from alcophobic activists. So, I’ve been looking at stats published in 2017 by NHS England which are based mainly on ONS data and some from Public Health England.
What do these numbers tell us about alcohol use and abuse and its consequences? First, the much-vexed question of alcohol-related hospital admissions: there were 339 thousand such admissions in England, representing just 2.1% of all hospital admissions - which has changed little in the last 10 years. This statistic is a measure of the number of hospital admissions where an alcohol-related disease, injury or condition was the primary reason for the admission, or where it was a secondary diagnosis related to an external cause, e.g., an alcohol-fuelled fight. This is known as the “narrow measure” of alcohol-related hospital admissions; it is a record of “admission episodes” – not people admitted, which is a much lower figure.
The so-called “broad measure” records 1.1 million admissions, but includes primary diagnoses plus admissions where an alcohol-related condition was a secondary diagnosis, i.e., not the reason for the admission. The important distinction between the two measures is that the narrow measure is a count of actual admissions to hospital for an alcohol-related cause, whereas the broad measure includes that count, but provides further information about alcohol-related conditions that a patient may have had in addition to the reason for their admission. This provides an indication of the health burden that alcohol misuse has across the whole population. Newspaper headlines often confuse the two to create alarmist headlines.
So, 2.1% of hospital admissions caused by alcohol misuse isn’t a crisis, it isn’t growing like topsy, and it won’t bankrupt the NHS.
In 2015 there were 6,813 deaths that were related to the consumption of alcohol, 65% of which were for alcoholic liver disease (4,428). Alcoholic liver disease sufferers drink at the very top end of the harmful drinkers’ spectrum. Harmful drinkers are classified as men drinking over 50 units a week, or women drinking over 35 units a week. Most of those dying from alcoholic liver disease drink around 200 units of alcohol a week or more – the equivalent of a bottle of scotch a day. Every one of these deaths is an avoidable tragedy, but just over 25 million adults in England drink alcohol at least once a week, so harmful drinking and deaths from it arise from the product being abused by a very small minority.
The number of adults in England who report drinking alcohol in the previous week has fallen from 64% in 2006 to 57% in 2016 – a fall of nearly 11%. The UK ranks 19th out of 31 countries in terms of annual alcohol consumption per head at just over 9 litres.