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Shift in drinking trends emerges amid record alcohol-related deaths in UK

Published:  23 April, 2024

Alcohol-related deaths in the UK hit a record high in 2022, with nearly 2,500 more fatalities compared to 2019, according to official figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The 33% surge in alcohol-specific deaths, totalling 10,048, marks the highest level since records began in 2001. Scotland and Northern Ireland reported higher per capita deaths than England, with the north-east being the worst-affected region in England.

David Mais, a health statistician at the ONS said: “Research has suggested that people who were already drinking at high levels before the pandemic were the most likely to have increased their drinking during this period.

“This is likely a factor in the increase in alcohol-specific death registrations we have seen in 2022. Alcoholic liver disease was the leading cause of these deaths, and as with previous years, rates are much higher among men.”

During the pandemic, off-licence alcohol sales in England surged by 12.6m extra litres compared to the previous year. Public Health England's research revealed a 57% increase in respondents drinking at increasing risk and higher risk levels between March 2020 and March 2021.

Alcohol misuse already costs the NHS an estimated £3.5bn annually in England, with a broader societal cost exceeding £25bn. Liver disease remained the leading cause of death, followed by mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol use.

Meanwhile, the Scottish government credits its minimum pricing policy for averting higher death tolls. Scotland introduced a minimum unit price (MUP) of 50p per unit in 2018, subsequently raising it to 65p per unit last week following a vote by MSPs.

Christina McKelvie, drugs and alcohol policy minister for Scotland said: “Research commended by internationally-renowned public health experts estimated that our world-leading policy has saved hundreds of lives, likely averted hundreds of alcohol-attributable hospital admissions and contributed to reducing health inequalities.

“As we have made clear, the policy aims to reduce alcohol-related harm by reducing consumption at population level, with a particular focus on targeting people who drink at hazardous and harmful levels.

“We believe the proposals strike a reasonable balance between public health benefits and any effects on the alcoholic drinks market and impact on consumers.

“Evidence suggests there has not been a significant impact on business and industry as a whole but we will continue to monitor this,” McKelvie concluded.

The concerning rise in alcohol-related deaths amid declining consumption rates in younger demographics could further fuel wellness drinking trends in the drinks industry.

A recent survey, the 2023 Drinkaware Monitor, conducted by YouGov and commissioned by Drinkaware, sheds light on shifting trends in alcohol consumption among UK adults.

Among drinkers, one in five reported opting for lower-strength alcoholic beverages (22%) or non-alcoholic substitutes (19%) to moderate their alcohol intake.

Reflecting on the survey findings in February, Karen Tyrell, CEO of the charity Drinkaware said: “The growth in the sale of no and low-alcohol drinks across the country is really exciting. 

“Our research shows UK drinkers are choosing them more and more to help moderate their drinking and stay within the low-risk drinking guidelines of 14 units a week.”