Food and diet

Drink causes a million hospital visits a year

Many newspapers have today reported that alcohol-related hospital admissions have risen to record levels, with over one million drink-related admissions in 2009/10. The level of admissions is nearly double of those seen in 2002/3. These stories have been prompted by the release of 2011's alcohol statistics report from the NHS Information Centre.

What did the report assess?

The report covered a range of issues relating to alcohol use, ranging from drinking habits to alcohol prices and hospitalisation rates. It covered drinking in adults (aged 16 and over) and schoolchildren (aged 11-15), drinking-related ill health and mortality, affordability of alcohol and alcohol-related costs. Some of the information in the report has been published previously but the information on hospital admissions is new.

What did the report find out about drink-related admissions?

The report found that in England in 2009/10:

  • There were 1,057,000 alcohol-related admissions to hospital. This was an increase of 12% on the 2008/09 figure (945,500 admissions), and more than twice as many as in 2002/03 (510,800 admissions).
  • Most (63%) of alcohol-related admissions were men. There were more admissions in the older age groups than in the younger age groups, in both men and women.
  • When the researchers looked at the rate of admissions and standardised the figures for gender and age, they found that the rates of alcohol-related admissions varied across different Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs). The rate ranged from 1,223 admissions per 100,000 of the population in the South Central SHA, to 2,406 and 2,295 admissions per 100,000 in the North East SHA and the North West SHA, respectively.

What kinds of problems were drinking-related?

In addition to admissions to hospital, the NHS Information Centre (IC) also reported on deaths related to alcohol. It said that in 2009, there were 6,584 deaths directly related to alcohol. This was a 3% decrease from the 2008 figure (6,769 deaths) but an increase of 20% on the 2001 figure (5,477 deaths). Of these alcohol-related deaths, the majority of people (4,154 people) died from alcoholic liver disease.

What did it say about drinking behaviour in adults?

The report found that in England in 2009:

  • Among adults aged over 16, just over two-thirds of men (69%) and half of women (55%) reported drinking an alcoholic drink on at least one day in the week before they were interviewed. A tenth of men and 6% of women reported drinking every day in the previous week.
  • Over a third of men (37%) drank over four units on at least one day in the week prior to interview and 29% of women drank more than three units at least one day in the week prior to interview (that is, more than the daily maximum levels recommended by the government). A fifth of men (20%) reported drinking over eight units and 13% of women reported drinking over six units on at least one day in the week prior to interview.
  • Average weekly alcohol consumption was 16.4 units for men and 8.0 units for women.
  • Just over a quarter (26%) of men reported drinking more than 21 units in an average week. For women, 18% reported drinking more than 14 units in an average week.
  • The overall volume of alcoholic drinks purchased for consumption outside the home decreased from 733millilitres (ml) of alcohol for each person a week in 2001/02 to 446ml for each person a week in 2009. This reduction is mainly due to a 45% decrease in the volume of beer purchases from 623ml to 342ml for each person a week over the same period.

Hazardous and harmful drinking

The report also discussed hazardous and harmful drinking behaviours. Hazardous drinking is defined as a pattern of drinking that brings about the risk of physical or psychological harm. Harmful drinking is a more serious subset of hazardous drinking behaviours. It is defined as a pattern of drinking that is likely to lead to physical or psychological harm.

Figures were not available for hazardous or harmful drinking in 2009, but figures were given for 2007.

  • In 2007, 33% of men and 16% of women (24% of adults) were classified as hazardous drinkers. This included 6% of men and 2% of women estimated to be harmful drinkers.
  • Among adults aged 16 to 74, 9% of men and 4% of women showed some signs of alcohol dependence.
  • The prevalence of alcohol dependence was slightly lower for men than it was in 2000, when 11.5% of men showed some signs of dependence. There was no significant change for women between 2000 and 2007.

What did it say about drinking behaviour in schoolchildren?

In children aged 11 to 15 in England in 2009, the results showed some improvement:

  • eighteen percent of secondary school pupils aged 11 to 15 reported drinking alcohol in the week prior to interview, compared with 26% in 2001
  • around half of pupils had ever had an alcoholic drink (51%), which was less than the proportion seen in 2003 (61%)
  • those pupils who had drunk in the last week consumed an average of 11.6 units

What about attitudes to alcohol?

Surveys of the British population in 2009 indicated that there was high awareness of the use of units to measure alcohol, with 90% of respondents saying they had heard of measuring alcohol in units. There had also been an increase in the proportion of people in Great Britain who had heard of daily drinking limits, from 54% in 1997 to 75% in 2009.

How much does drinking cost the NHS?

The report features figures from a 2008 government report that estimated that the cost of alcohol harm to the NHS in England was £2.7 billion in 2006/07 prices. This accounted for the costs of hospital inpatient stays, day visits, outpatient visits, A&E visits, ambulance services, GP consultants, practise nurse consultants, lab tests, drugs to treat alcohol dependency, specialist treatment services, and other healthcare costs.

The NHS IC report also looked at the treatment of alcohol dependency in the NHS in England. It found that:

  • In 2010, there were 160,181 prescription items for drugs for the treatment of alcohol dependency prescribed in primary care settings or NHS hospitals, and dispensed in the community. This was an increase of 6% on the amount prescribed in 2009 (150,445 items) and an increase of 56% on the amount prescribed in 2003 (102,741 items).
  • The net cost of these prescription items (called the net ingredient cost) was £2.41 million in 2010. This was an increase of 1.4% on the cost in 2009 (£2.38 million) and an increase of 40% on the cost in 2003 (£1.72 million).
  • When looking at the number of prescription items issued they found that in 2010 there were 290 prescription items dispensed for alcohol dependency per 100,000 of the population 2010. Among SHAs this ranged from 130 items per 100,000 of the population in London SHA, to 515 and 410 items per 100,000 of the population in North West SHA and North East SHA, respectively.

How can I tell if I am drinking too much alcohol?

Current government recommendations are that:

  • adult men should not regularly drink more than three to four units a day
  • adult women should not regularly drink more than two to three units a day

Where can I get more information on alcohol?

You can find more information on alcohol, units and drinking habits in our Live Well alcohol section.

NHS Attribution