Public calls for cancer warnings on alcohol as nearly 80% say Britain ‘has a drink problem’: Priory experts say lockdown has ‘loosened controls’ on people’s alcohol consumption, with job loss, and loneliness the most significant factors.
A new poll shows mounting public concern about drinking levels in the UK, especially under lockdown, with almost 8 in 10 people (78%) saying the UK has a problem with excessive drinking.
A poll of 1,000 adults for the Priory Group*, the addiction and mental health specialists, found that 2 in 3 thought the message ‘drink responsibly’ was too vague, and should be replaced with specific health warnings.
Almost six in 10 (59%) believe alcohol should carry a cancer warning.
The poll comes after official figures showed a steep rise in people drinking more.
The most recent data from Public Health England on the wider impacts of Covid-19 showed nearly 1 in 5 (19%) adults drinking at higher risk in June, up from 1 in 10 (10.8%) in February. When applied to the population of England, some 8,410,045 people were drinking at higher risk.
Figures also showed that some 550,562 adults started drinking dangerously heavy levels of 50 units a week during the first lockdown, a jump from 1.65million a week to 2.2million and the equivalent of 22 pints of beer or five bottles of wine.
A single 750ml bottle of red, white or rosé wine (ABV 13.5%) contains 10 units alone.
The current UK guidelines advise both men and women keep their alcohol intake below 14 units a week.
Priory consultant psychiatrist Dr Paul McLaren said: “Now is the time for us as a nation to re-address our relationship with alcohol. The public is demonstrating absolute common sense by calling for stronger warnings about the health risks and the Government should take note that such a move would be welcomed.
“Covid-19 and isolation has changed millions of people’s drinking habits and we need to address this now and recalibrate. If you are going to drink, you should educate yourself about all the risks – to your mental health, as alcohol is a depressant, and physical health.
“The NHS points out that if you drink less than 14 units a week, this is considered low-risk drinking, but it’s called ‘low risk’ rather than ‘safe’ because there’s no safe drinking level.”
Drinking heavily and regularly can weaken immunity and cause obesity, reducing the body’s ability to cope with infectious diseases – fuelling concern amid rising cases of Covid-19.
Illnesses associated with regular higher risk drinking include: cancers of the mouth, throat, colon and breast, as well as strokes, heart disease, liver disease, brain damage, and damage to the nervous system.
Dr Syed Omair Ahmed, psychiatrist at Priory’s Birmingham Wellbeing Centre and the Priory Woodbourne Hospital in Edgbaston, said he was particularly concerned about older people.
“We are seeing more people above the age of 65 resorting to alcohol. The causes are manifold including boredom, isolation, fear, lack of family contact, and lack of outdoor activities. Not seeing a GP out of fear of Covid-19 means that physical health conditions are not being optimally addressed, and this can lead to increased drinking as a coping mechanism for pain or pre-existing mental health issues.”
He said many had also suffered significant bereavements.
Dr Niall Campbell, one of the UK’s leading alcohol addiction experts, added that regulators should work with doctors and psychiatrists to ensure bottles and cans display accurate, current advice on safe drinking limits.
A recent study suggested that nearly three quarters of alcohol bottles or cans are not displaying the Government’s safe drinking limits four years after they were announced.
This included one in four that were showing the wrong advice – and claiming men could have up to 28 units a week and women up to 21 units a week.
Dr Campbell, who treats patients for addiction at Roehampton Hospital in south-west London, said: “I spend a lot of time with my patients discussing alcohol limits. The NHS put these at 14 units for men and women four years ago.
“To have a different message on packaging is very unhelpful and confusing.
“The regulators need to work with medical professionals to try to help those who want to continue drinking safely.”
The Government revised its drinking advice in 2016 and recommended both men and women should have no more than 14 units a week. But the Alcohol Health Alliance – a coalition of 50 organisations including the Royal College of Physicians and Cancer Research UK – found this missing from 71 per cent of beverages.
It found 24 per cent of bottles or cans contained the wrong, out-of-date advice, which says women can have two to three units a day, or 21 a week, and men three to four units daily, or 28 units a week. Forty-seven per cent did not have any advice at all.
The Priory Group’s own research has found that nearly half of people are not aware that the weekly recommended limit is 14 units, a figure which rises to 57% among men. More than 60% of adults also had no idea how much alcohol constitutes “binge drinking”.
The NHS says that in the UK, binge drinking is drinking more than:
- 8 units of alcohol in a single session for men
- 6 units of alcohol in a single session for women
It says 6 units is 2 pints of 5% strength beer, or 2 large (250ml) glasses of 12% wine, while
8 units is 5 bottles (330ml) of 5% strength beer or 5 small (125ml) glasses of 13% wine. It adds: “This is not an exact definition for binge drinking that applies to everyone, as tolerance to alcohol can vary from person to person.
The speed of drinking in a session can also alter alcohol’s effects.”
Drinking alcohol increases the risk of mouth cancer, pharyngeal (upper throat) cancer, oesophageal (food pipe) cancer, laryngeal (voice box) cancer, breast cancer, bowel cancer and liver cancer.
In the UK in 2018 there were 7,551 alcohol-specific deaths, the second-highest level since the records began in 2001.
In England, there are an estimated 586,780 dependent drinkers (2017-18), of whom 82% are not accessing treatment. Alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15-49 year-olds in the UK, and the fifth biggest risk factor across all ages.
Alcohol causes around 11,900 cases of cancer per year in the UK.
Cancer Research UK says cancer risk starts to increase at small amounts, “so the more you can cut down the more you can reduce your risk. Sticking within the government guidelines is a good place to start.
“Research shows drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer whether you drink it all in one go or spread it throughout the week.”