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Alcohol News Archive

So What WAS in the News?

Substance abuse, whether legal or illegal, is so widespread in modern society that there are many stories about it in the news everyday.

This page contains stories which were, originally, placed on the Substance Abuse News page but which can no longer be called 'News'.

In addition to items specifically about this substance there are many items related to substance use and misuse in general where they have relevance to alcohol. These general items can be found in the 'All Substances News Archive'.

Please go to the 'Phantastica' page to access stories related to specific substances.

Nearly 200 Dead in Poison Alcohol Tragedy in India
19th December 2011

Around 170 people are now thought to have died in West Bengal after drinking illegal alcohol with methanol added to it.

Read more in today's blog

Alcohol-related Hospital Admissions in England Double in 8 Years
12th December 2011

At over 1.1 million, hospital admissions for alcohol-related problems are double the 2002/3 level.

Read more in today's blog

NHS Publishes Detailed Summary of Alcohol Research
22nd October 2011

The NHS Choices 'Behind the Headlines' website has published a report summarising four years of alcohol studies and the media's treatment of alcohol.

Read more in today's blog.

Alcohol and the Armed Forces
2nd September 2011

An average of 700 serving members of the UK armed forces are dismissed as a result of positive drug tests on their return from leave but alcohol is served in their barracks, even when on active service.

Go to today's blog post for more on this.

Five Killed in Explosion at 'Illegal Alcohol Factory'
14th July 2011

An explosion in an industrial unit in Lincolnshire killed five men and injured a sixth. Police are pursuing the probability that the men were engaged in producing fake vodka. Though impossible to be precise, it is thought that there is a large market for illegal, and hence tax-free, alcohol in the UK.

Go to today's blog post for more on this.

Alcohol - A Shameful Milestone
28th May 2011

A new report from the NHS in England shows that in 2009/10, there were 1,057,000 alcohol related admissions to hospital. This is the first time the figure has gone over one million and represents a 12% increase over the previous year in spite of the difficult economic conditions.

Alcohol related harm costs the NHS in England around £3bn a year.

When a couple of deaths were attributed (wrongly, as it turned out) to mephedrone there was a media frenzy calling for it to be banned. But, it seems, over 1 million people a year suffering proven harm from alcohol is not seen as a problem needing drastic action.

Alcohol Sponsorship
12th February 2011

A Welsh charity, Alcohol Concern Cymru, has called for a ban on sponsorship of sports or cultural events by companies selling alcohol.

The alcohol industry body, the Portman Group, always says that its aim is to promote responsible drinking to adults. The charity says that claim is difficult to substantiate when sporting events and music festivals have such a high incidence of alcohol sponsorship. It alleges that the thrust of the sponsorship is to make it appear that drinking is 'cool' and is an essential part of social activities.

Slight Fall in Alcohol-related Deaths in 2009
10th February 2011

Adding to the snippet of information in the previous entry, the UK's Office of National Statistics has recently published its annual survey of 'Alcohol-related deaths'. I've put quotes around that because it is important to note that these figures relate only to deaths directly attributed to alcohol. There are known to be deaths due to, for example, falling when drunk that are not attributed to alcohol in such a way as to be included and there are known to be instances where deaths after long-term alcohol use are attributed to some other cause that would not have arisen unless the deceased had been a regular drinker. Thus, the total number of deaths in which alcohol is a factor is much higher than this report states but, by collecting data on a systematic basis, it may be more useful in terms of identifying trends.

(Because of the rather odd way that the UK is structured, this report gives figures for the UK, in total, and separate figures for England and Wales. Separate figures for Scotland and Northern Ireland are available.)

In total, in 2009, at 8,664, there were 367 fewer deaths in the UK directly attributed to alcohol than in 2008. This is the first year, since 2000, that such a year on year reduction has occurred but the total, 5,690 men and 2,974 women, is still substantially higher than the 2000 figures, 4,483 men and 2,401 women. Taken on a per 100,000 of population basis, alcohol deaths have risen from 11.2 in 2000 to 12.8 in 2009. These figures should be viewed with caution since they take no account of the change in the make up of the UK population over the period.

This relatively small reduction may be the result of the UK's economic situation rather than any realisation of the dangers of alcohol but, because the figures do not separate deaths from short-term high consumption as opposed to long-term abuse, it is not possible to estimate the effect this may have had.

What is undeniable is that alcohol continues to cause many, many more deaths than all the illegal substances combined.  

Mixed Messages on Substance Misuse
29th January 2011

Within the past week the UK's NHS has published information about use of illegal drugs and alcohol. Understanding what this information really means is complicated by a number of factors. Because of the different areas of responsibility for things like health and law enforcement, some of the figures cover the whole of the UK, some only England, some only Wales and some England & Wales. Drawing conclusions from comparing different data is, therefore, fraught with danger.

Another complication comes from the separation between illegal drugs and alcohol. This means that these two, strongly related, areas are dealt with in separate reports. On 27th January the NHS Information Centre released  Statistics on Drug Misuse, England - 2010 Report (note that the title makes no mention of Wales) and, on the same day, according to newspaper reports dated 29th January (for example, the Daily Mail) it published figures showing an increase in under 15 drinking, especially amongst girls.

So far, I have not been able to locate the source document for the press reports so it's hard to offer a considered analysis.

What I have found is this summary on alcohol deaths in the UK in 2009.

Both the report on drug use and the alcohol deaths figures suggest a decrease in usage. With alcohol, it is suggested that the economic downturn is responsible for the reduced deaths. With drugs, the tone of reporting has been to suggest that young people, in particular, are turning away from illicit drugs. This is being used, by some commentators, to suggest that current policy is working and enforcement efforts should be increased.

Given that alcohol related deaths may result from years of misuse it would seem to be a stretch to suggest that a decrease in deaths in one year was the result of economic conditions in that year. Indeed, if the Mail report is correct, the signs are not the economy did not affect consumption of alcohol in all sectors.

Because of the difficulties mentioned above, I shall try and avoid making the same mistakes these commentators have, that is over-stating the conclusions to be drawn from the data.

What does not appear to have been considered is the effect of a switch from illegal substances of dubious strength, like ecstasy and cocaine, to legal highs (for much of the period reviewed mephedrone was legal and widely available). Nor is it possible to estimate whether alcohol was substituted for illegal drugs to any large extent meaning that young people continued to expose themselves to harm in the interest of having a good time rather than eschewing all chemical manipulation of their physical and mental states.

Though there do seem to have been reductions in Class A drug use, the main downturn is reported for cannabis. With the lag between cause and effect, it is worth considering whether the move away from cannabis results from the downgrade to Class C which came to an end in January 2009. Note that the '2010' report actually looks at the period April 2009 to March 2010.

Reading this back, I realise I have, probably, done no more than create confusion in the reader's mind. I shall return to the subject once I have the source data on alcohol reported in the press and try for greater clarity.

One conclusion I think is clear; there is no chance of understanding the situation regarding use of potentially harmful substances unless they are dealt with in a single document covering 'drugs', alcohol and 'legal highs' so that substitution effects are brought out.

USA Plans Merger of Research Bodies on Drugs and Alcohol
10th October 2010

The USA's National Institutes of Health (NIH) has control over two research bodies, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). On 15th September, after what some have said has been twelve years of consideration, its Scientific Management Review Board, meeting in Bethesda, Maryland, voted in 12 to 3 in favour of combining the two into a single body focussing on addiction.

Of the two bodies, NIDA is in favour of the merger but the smaller NIAAA is opposed. Some of the arguments on either side are concerned with alcohol research taking second place to 'drugs', countered by a better understanding of the interactions between 'drugs' and alcohol, with some people saying alcohol could actually get access to more research funds and others claiming some scientists, who would have done useful research on alcohol, may be reluctant to be associated with 'drug' use.

As often happens in this sort of situation, it is hard to separate valid concerns from vested interests. On the face of it it does appear to be a good idea in terms of focussing on the harm alcohol does, especially is used in conjunction with other substances. The drinks industry is keeping quiet but, one assumes, would not welcome its products being lumped in with 'drugs'.

There are, naturally, also those who say this is simply a move to cut costs.

It is up to the NIH Director to decide whether to recommend the move to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services for her approval. The US Congress must also be 'advised' but can raise objections that would result in the matter being debated.

How Widespread is Combined Use of Cocaine and Alcohol?

It has been known for some time that cocaethylene, the unique metabolite resulting from use of cocaine and alcohol at the same time, is potentially much more harmful that the metabolites arising from cocaine use alone.

Now the Alcohol Education and Research Council (AERC)'s 'Alcohol Academy' has published a briefing paper looking into cocaethylene, 'Cocaethylene - responding to combined alcohol and cocaine use' (opens new window).

The paper finds that detailed evidence is lacking but it seems certain that there is a high level of combined substance use, intentionally to enhance and prolong the effects of cocaine, but only a low level of the increased risks arising.

The authors call for much more study of combined use noting that attention is often concentrated solely on the illegal substance use.

In 2008, of 235 deaths where cocaine was mentioned as a principal cause, 75 also mentioned alcohol.

Too Much of the Hard Stuff

The UK's NHS Confederation, working with the Royal College of Physicians, chose 1st January 2010, understandably, to publish 'Too Much of the Hard Stuff: what alcohol costs the NHS'.

The report, which only covers the situation in England, begins by setting out the scale of the problem before looking at ways in which alcohol-related healthcare could be provided more efficiently and at lower cost.

The bullet points from the report provide some truly worrying statistics (though the first is a little suspect because adjusting for inflation makes the current cost much closer to that in 2001);

• In 2006/7, alcohol-related treatment cost the NHS about £2.7bn, nearly double the cost in 2001.

• Over 25% of the population in England is drinking at 'hazardous' levels.

• 50% of all violent assaults are alcohol-fuelled

• 22% of accidental deaths are alcohol-related

• Alcohol plays a role in 30% of suicides

• When St James' Hospital in Leeds monitored A & E admissions for four months in 2009 it found that 21.8% were alcohol-related.

Estimating the total cost of alcohol to the UK economy is much more difficult but the lowest estimate seems to be around £20bn a year.

Access to the full report is available on the NHS Confederation website. (opens new window)

Perception and Prevalence of Date Rape Drugs

Researchers at Kent State University in the USA have attempted to compare prevalence and perception of 'date rape' drugs like GBH amongst young people. They spoke to 200 university students from the USA and the UK about their experiences of regrettable sexual encounters after a night out.

Though the sample is a little small for firm conclusions, the researchers found that young women who had a sexual experience which they regretted the next day were far more likely to assume they had had a drink that had been 'spiked' rather than that their alcohol consumption had been enough to bring about their behaviour.

The researchers concluded that the actual use of 'date rape' drugs is very much smaller than most young women believe. It seems that what is required is a better understanding, amongst young people, of the effects of alcohol on behaviour.

22-year-old 'Binge Drinker' Dies from Liver Failure

Many people think that it is perfectly normal for young people to lead slightly wild lives because they will soon settle down when they reach their twenties. They also assume that any damage being done by their lifestyle is reversible or will not become evident until they are much older.

The case of Gary Reinbach, 22, from Dagenham London illustrates that this is not always so. Mr Reinbach began heavy drinking at the age of 13 and, ten weeks ago, showed the first signs of liver failure. His condition deteriorated so quickly that he was unable to demonstrate that he had given up alcohol for long enough to qualify for a transplant.

One of the consultants involved in the case has suggested that this may confirm suspicions that the liver is not as tolerant of alcohol during the teenage years as it is in later life.

Dying for a Drink?

The Lancet, in its 26th June 2009 edition, has a section on 'Alcohol & Global Health'. The section features three papers and a number of commentaries.

In one of the papers, researchers from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada estimate that as many as 1 in 25 deaths globally and 1 in 10 for Europe may be attributable to alcohol.

Globally, the average consumption of alcohol is 12 units per week but this rises to 21.5 units in Europe.

Statistics on Alcohol: England, 2009

The NHS Health and Social Care Information Centre has published the above report which is both a summary and a reanalysis of reports on alcohol use in England from a variety of sources.

The key findings are that though the prevalence of alcohol dependency amongst 16 to 74 year olds has fallen (9% of men and 4% of women in 2007 as against 11.5% for men and 4% for women in 2000) the number of hospital admissions related to alcohol is substantially increased (863,300 in 2007/08 versus 510,200 in 2002/03, an increase of 69%). Deaths due to alcohol, at 6,541 in 2007 are up 19% on 2001.

Overall, 24% of adults are believed to be drinking at hazardous levels.

The overwhelming majority of deaths are due to alcoholic liver disease. Liver damage is a cumulative effect so, even though there are signs of a slowing in the excessive use of alcohol, there is, probably, a long way to go before that reduced consumption is reflected in reduced harm.

Similarly, for 11 to 15 year olds, alcohol prevalence seems to be falling with 20% reporting alcohol use in the week before being surveyed, in 2007, against 26% in 2001. 17%, however, believe that getting drunk once a week is 'OK'.

The cost to the NHS in England of alcohol related harm in 2006/07 was £2.7 billion.

The full report plus supporting tables can be downloaded from the NHS Information Centre (opens in new window).

Alcopops Encourage Underage Drinking

A survey of 2,100 American adults found that 52% probably, if not definitely, believe that alcopops encourage underage drinking and 92% believe the bottles should carry clear warning labels. Furthermore, over 80% believe adverts for alcopops should not appear on websites or in magazines aimed at teenagers.

The poll also found that 75% of adults believe underage drinking is a problem in the USA. Given that alcohol use by American teenagers is far below use in the UK, it must be assumed that a similar survey, if conducted in the UK, would find at least these levels of concern.

Low price alcohol still no.1 problem, says NHS staff

The Royal College of Physicians has conducted what it calls 'A snapshot survey of doctors and nurses treating patients with alcohol related harm'. Unfortunately, it gives no indication of the size of the survey sample which, inevitably, makes the results somewhat suspect, however, this is less of a problem when the overwhelming majority of survey participants are of the same view.

The survey found that NHS staff, dealing with alcohol related harms daily, are firmly of the opinion that low cost alcohol is the major factor driving increased hospital attendance for drink related problems.

The press release from the RCP gives a link to a five page summary of the survey.

Dying for a Drink

It is surprising that a document so dry sounding as the annual report of the Chief Medical Officer for England should be leaked two days before its official publication but, perhaps, the surprise is lessened by the news that the item leaked was Sir Liam Donaldson's suggestion that a minimum price per unit of alcohol would improve the public health.

As happens with leaks, the media had a feeding frenzy on the leak and then completely ignored the actual report when it was published. This meant they could huff and puff about the 'majority of sensible drinkers' being penalised because of the few and even quote Gordon Brown saying pretty much the same thing whilst disregarding the truly alarming statistics on alcohol misuse which led Sir Liam to make his proposal.

The annual report in total is an interesting read and can be downloaded from the Department of Health website.

Of course, it is speculative to say, as Sir Liam does, that 3,300+ lives would be saved, per year, if a 50p minimum price were introduced but what is not speculative is the over 16,000 deaths every year due to alcohol, the 7,000 miscarriages due to alcohol or the 660 children killed on the roads in 2006 due to alcohol.

The references to the 'majority of sensible drinkers' are only possible thanks to women. 50% of men, but only 33% of women regularly exceed the advisory limit on daily alcohol intake so a very substantial minority cannot be described as having a sensible relationship with drink.

It's hard not to believe that whoever leaked the minimum price recommendation wanted to be sure the media didn't focus on the enormous cost of alcohol use.

Illicit Alcohol is a Major Part of Total Consumption

The International Center for Alcohol Policies has published results of a survey of 'noncommercial' alcohol consumption in three regions which suggests that published alcohol consumption figures may be seriously under-stated.

'Noncommercial' alcohol may be alcohol intended for industrial use which is added to alcoholic products to increase their strength or it may be illicitly produced drinks.

The ICAP survey looked at the situation in three regions of the world; Sub-Saharan Africa, central and eastern Europe and southern Asia. It found that 'noncommercial' alcohol was a major component of total alcohol consumption; in some countries even exceeding recorded consumption.

The Ukraine has a recorded consumption of 6.09l per capita per annum but noncommercial alcohol consumption is estimated at 10.5l. In Sri Lanka noncommercial alcohol accounts for 77% of total consumption and in many countries in Africa it exceeds recorded levels.

This previously unrecognized consumption of alcohol makes correlation of deleterious effects with consumption problematic.

The full report may be downloaded from the ICAP website. (Opens a new window.)

Alcohol Implicated in over 450,000 Hospital Admissions

In May, 2008, the NHS published figures showing that there were 207,800 admissions in 2006/7 related to alcohol but a re-examination of the figures taking account of accidents and violent incidents related to alcohol suggests the level could be as high as 460,000 or 6% of all admissions.

The new report was prepared by the North West Public Health Observatory (NWPHO) and can be accessed from the NWPHO website. Opens in new window.