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NHS Predicts Pandemic Drinking Will Cause an Increase in Alcohol Deaths Over Next 20 Years 

Increased rates of alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic could contribute to poor outcomes and even an increase in deaths over the next two decades.

In a worst-case scenario, the NHS estimates there could be nearly a million extra hospital admissions and 25,000 extra alcohol-related deaths over the next 20 years, costing the service more than £5bn.

The results suggest that ‘under the best-case scenario’ of people reducing their alcohol intake and returning to pre-pandemic boozing levels, there could be 1,830 extra deaths within two decades. The estimated worst-case scenario could result in a rise of 972,382 hospital admissions and 25,192 extra deaths over the same period, potentially costing the NHS £5.2bn.

This clearly highlights a need for quality alcohol addiction treatment in the UK to deal with the potential long-term harm caused by pandemic drinking.
Risk Factors for Increased Alcohol Consumption

The research has highlighted inequalities that exist in levels of alcohol consumption and rates of alcohol-related harm and deaths are not evenly distributed across the population. People living in the most deprived areas – who already suffer the highest rates of alcohol harm – are set to be disproportionately affected. This is as a result of a number of factors including access to addiction services and other social support.
 
Living in poverty is also linked with poorer health outcomes, not just through leading an unhealthy lifestyle such as heavy drinking, but also as a direct consequence of poor material circumstances and psychosocial stresses. Damp, cold, or unsuitable social housing, hard manual labour, poorer diet and lack of access to green space could all impact mental health as well as resilience to disease, predisposing people to greater health harms of alcohol and a greater possibility of developing addiction. 

Prior to 2019, before the general public even considered they might be about to live through a worldwide pandemic, men were far more likely to die or end up in hospital as a result of their alcohol consumption. This remains the case, however researchers have found a greater percentage increase of alcohol-related hospital visits, harm, and death for women.

Pandemic Alcohol Consumption 
 
Upon analysis of the results, it is clear that drinking more during the pandemic was not a general trend. In fact surveys suggest that on average, light and moderate drinkers actually decreased their consumption. However, people who were already heavy drinkers, drank even more which is the driving force behind the results that warn of increased hospital admissions and death.

When looking at trends of alcohol consumption before the pandemic, we can see that over the past 10 years, total alcohol consumption has gone down consistently. The average person in the UK now drinks around 15% less alcohol than they did 10 years ago. For the most part, this trend continued during the COVID-19 lockdowns, with the vast majority of people continuing to drink moderately, and some lighter drinkers cutting their consumption.
 
It is the small minority of people who were already drinking at levels that are associated with significant risk of harm when the lockdowns began that need the most support and effective intervention. Researchers are calling for targeted action and a focused policy response, with some calling this a ‘wake-up call’ to take alcohol harm seriously as part of recovery planning from the pandemic. 

Alcohol Abuse and Treatment

The release of this research has coincided with the announcement of the government’s£900-million Drug Strategy, a 10 year commitment to reduce alcohol and drug use and the harms it has on society. This commitment details that £780 million will be invested in rebuilding drug treatment and recovery services. Critically, this includes an increase in funding and direct interventions for young people and those in the criminal justice system, with new commissioning standards to ensure transparency and consistency. 

Addiction is a disease, and services to support people in recovery from this disease need to be improved and increased to meet demands. This research paints a clear picture that if such services are not improved now, those struggling with alcohol abuse, their families, and the UK economy could suffer.

The landmark scheme does include several policy approaches that focus on recovery as opposed to retribution for drug use. This includes the new ‘Problem Solving Courts’ and an increase in spending to ensure that there is early intervention for young people and families at the greatest risk of alcohol-related harm. These are modern approaches and highly influenced by the major independent review by Professor Dame Carol Black into the misuse of illegal drugs in England.
 
What Can be Done to Address Alcohol Harm
The new plan intends to tackle substance abuse harm because of the chronic nature of addiction. Treatment should be earlier, of better quality, and supported throughout. The additional funding will go towards better treatment, housing needs, and employment support. 

There are, however, several policies within this plan that will further criminalize drug use and enforce strict, punitive measures to deter use such as confiscating passports, mandatory drug tags, and nightclub bans. This strict policing of substance use will be costly, and many campaigners question whether it will address the range of reasons that contribute to increased drug and alcohol abuse, such as mental illness, trauma, poverty, social isolation, discrimination, and unemployment.
Drug dependence often co-exists with other health disparities, like poor mental health and homelessness, so it is important that the physical and mental health needs of people with substance abuse disorders are addressed, to reduce harm and support recovery.

Quality, clinically-proven approaches to treating substance use disorders are key to addressing the concerns laid out in this study, yet as Dame Carol Black recommends in her review: research on substance abuse must extend beyond the limited focus on crisis support to look deeper into the factors which promote long term recovery.
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