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Science

Binge drinking causes thousands of avoidable deaths in the UK, study finds

Failure to tackle Britain's persistent alcohol problem could lead to hundreds of thousands more people dying from liver disease in the UK than in many other European countries, experts warn.

A person sitting on the ground with an empty drink can rolling around

10 million people in the UK drink at a dangerous level

In a comment written for medical journal "The Lancet," three health experts - Ian Gilmore, former president of the College of Physicians, Nick Sheron, University of Southampton, and Chris Hawkey, Queen's Medical Centre, University Hospital - stated that thousands of deaths from liver disease could be avoided if the UK adopts appropriate alcohol policies.

In a worst-case scenario, up to 250,000 extra lives could be lost in England and Wales alone due to alcohol over the next 20 years unless tougher restrictions are introduced, they wrote.

Until the mid-1980s, the number of deaths from liver disease in the UK were similar to those of countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Australia, and New Zealand - all of which have similar drinking cultures and genetic backgrounds. However, while the statistics in most of these countries have remained steady since then, the UK has seen a doubling of its liver disease death rate from 4.9 per 100,000 people to 11.4.

A drinking culture

France has, the authors said, been very successful in reducing death rates by increasing alcohol quality and limiting availability of cheap alcohol products. On the contrary, they pointed out that "UK drinks producers and retailers are reliant on people risking their health to provide profits."

Representatives of the UK's health and alcohol-awareness organizations such as Alcohol Concern, the English and Welsh-based national agency on alcohol misuse campaigning, echoed this concern, supporting the idea to raise alcohol prices and impose tougher regulations.

A hand holds a bottle in a fridge filled with alcoholic mix drinks

Health groups want to make access to alcohol harder

"The drinking culture in [the UK] is, unfortunately, a heavy-drinking culture," Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, told Deutsche Welle. "And especially among young people, it's a binge-drinking culture."

"It's a historical cultural pattern exacerbated by the availability of cheap alcohol," he added.

He pointed out that 10 million people in the UK classify as hazardous, heavy or dependent drinkers, with young people aged between 18 and 35 years old drinking more than any other age group.

As around 80 percent of liver disease is caused by alcohol abuse, the steady rise in liver disease patients is a clear reflection of the worrying drinking trend.

Not enough being done

In order to curb binge-drinking among the young, the British government recently made a move to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages below cost (duty plus value-added tax) and to increase duty on beer with an alcohol content of over 7.5 percent. However, critics, including Shenker, said that this was not enough.

"We advocate having a minimum price of 50 pence [$0.8] per unit of alcohol," Shenker said, whose organization is campaigning for this change together with others. "Other possible measures are raising alcohol taxes, reducing the number of licensed premises, changing drink-driving regulations, reducing alcohol marketing and getting doctors to ask

more questions about drinking."

In "The Lancet" article, the authors reflected this view by citing regulation-based activity that has helped control UK alcohol consumption in the past, saying, "These and other data show the influence of price and indicate that the regulation of population-level alcohol consumption is a duty of responsible government."

"Irrespective of the means the UK Government chooses to design and implement their public health strategy, the key test must be the impact on hard outcomes," they concluded.

Author: Eva Wutke

Editor: Stuart Tiffen

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