Published: 26 July 2022
Changes in people’s drinking patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to lead to thousands of extra cases of diseases including cancer and stroke, according to new research funded by NIHR.
New modelling research carried out by the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) and Health Lumen, and funded by NIHR’s Policy Research Programme, shows that if alcohol consumption does not return to 2019 levels or lower, England could see an extra 147,892 cases of disease, and 9,914 additional premature deaths by 2035.
During the pandemic there has been an increase in the number of higher risk drinkers in England, and the heaviest drinkers have increased their alcohol consumption the most, bringing a risk of more alcohol-related health problems.
The research modelled three different scenarios, looking at the health outcomes if changes in drinking habits went back to pre-pandemic levels either imminently, after a delay, or if these new patterns became permanent. The models predicted future harm from nine alcohol-related diseases - high blood pressure, stroke, liver cirrhosis, and six forms of cancer (breast, bowel, liver, mouth, oesophageal and throat cancer).
In the most extreme scenario where pandemic-level increases in alcohol consumption became permanent, the model predicted 147,892 additional cases of disease by 2035, as well as 9,914 additional premature deaths. These harms would lead to £1.2 billion in additional costs to the NHS.
The projected increases in premature deaths were larger among those less well-off in society, further widening inequalities.
The researchers warn that as the report focuses on a small number of the 200 diseases related to alcohol, the true impact of changes to alcohol consumption in the pandemic is likely to be far greater. Their results are consistent with real increases in alcoholic liver disease and alcohol-specific deaths that have occurred since the onset of the pandemic.
Joint lead on the study Dr Sadie Boniface said: “Much of the health harm from alcohol is from chronic diseases which take years to develop. Our results shed light on the long-term impacts of recent changes in drinking patterns.
“These increases in alcohol harm, lives lost, and costs to the NHS projected in our study are not inevitable. Deaths from alcohol are at record levels, and this research should act as a ‘wake-up call’ to take alcohol harm seriously as part of recovery planning from the pandemic.”
The report recommends that England introduces minimum unit pricing, increases funding and resources for alcohol treatment and support, and capitalises on the alcohol duty reform by increasing it with inflation each year.