The big (old) news is that there were more than a million alcohol-related hospital admissions last year in the UK despite (and this is rarely mentioned) alcohol consumption having been in decline for the last eight years, and despite (this is never mentioned) Britain having the third highest alcohol taxes in the world. This is a doubling in admissions in less than a decade. A truly remarkable phenomenon, if true.
In my naïvité, I always imagined that it was doctors and nurses who decided whether a hospital admission was alcohol-related, but then I read this post at the always informative Straight Statistics, which explains that hospital admissions data are divided up according to various assumptions. For example, it is assumed that 20% of all stomach cancer admissions are alcohol-related, half of epilepsy admissions are alcohol-related and a quarter of admissions for extreme cold are alcohol-related.
These assumptions are based on individual epidemiological studies which may or may not reflect the true risks. Whether true or not, if a man goes to hospital complaining of hypertension, he will make up a quarter of an alcohol-related admission, even if he is a teetotaler. If he goes to hospital 8 times, he will have added two alcohol-related admissions to the statistics—remember, these are admissions, not different individuals. The system is called 'alcohol-attributable fractions' and you can read all about it here should you wish.
Having read many an epidemiological study, I am not convinced that this is the very best way to get a handle on alcohol-related harm. The NHS's figures have already been
These figures use a new methodology reflecting a substantial change in the way the impact of alcohol on hospital admissions is calculated. Previously the calculation counted only admissions for reasons specifically related to alcohol. The new calculation, for which the methodology is described in the report, includes a proportion of the admissions for reasons that are not always related to alcohol, but can be in some instances (such as accidental injury).
The number of ailments that are categorised as 'alcohol-related' has jumped from 7 to 14 to 20 in the space of eight years:
Finished admission episodes are identified where an alcohol-related diagnosis is recorded in any of the 20 (14 from 2002/03 to 2006/07 and 7 prior to 2002/03) primary and secondary diagnosis fields in a Hospital Admission Statistics record.
As a consequence of these changes we are seeing an enormous rise in admissions that are 'partially attributable' to alcohol which would not have been considered alcohol-related in the past. And of these partially attributable admissions, the biggest growth has come from diseases of old age which are blamed on alcohol by the system of attributable fractions.
As the Portman Group has pointed out in a letter that probably won't be published, hospital admissions are rising in general, largely as a result of the ageing population. According to them, the proportion of hospital admissions that are 'alcohol-related' has risen from 1.32% to 1.34% in five years, which does not sound quite like the 'epidemic' you may have read about.
Take hypertension, for example. There are many hundreds of thousands of admissions for hypertensive disease every year. The system of attributable fractions assumes that 28% of them are due to alcohol (13% for women), and, as a result, the number of 'alcohol-related' hypertension admissions has risen from 136,000 to 383,900 since 2002. There are also a huge number of admissions for heart palpitations, of which 182,300 are blamed on alcohol (up from 87,000 in 2002).
I am not necessarily saying that these ailments were not caused by alcohol in some way, but these two conditions make up more than half of the million admissions that have filled the headlines. And those headlines are invariably accompanied with images of young people out on a Saturday night. The unmistakeable impression is that a million people are being rushed to hospital with alcohol poisoning or liver cirrhosis. They're not. The admissions that are wholly attributable to alcohol make up less than a quarter of the total.
I suppose images of people in their eighties repeatedly being admitted to hospital with heart problems wouldn't sell the temperance lobby's agenda so effectively, but it is these pensioners, rather than the teen bingers, who are the real face of this moral panic. Hospital admissions for heart failure, hypertension, stroke, stomach cancer etc. will almost certainly continue to rise in the future because of the ageing population. As a consequence, the number of partially attributable alcohol-related hospital admissions will also rise. It has to, because although the number of admissions change, the underlying assumptions do not.
(It should be mentioned that drinking has prevented many thousands of hospital admissions because of the protective effect of alcohol on the heart. The NHS figures cannot be expected to include these, but any honest anti-alcohol campaigner would calculate how many admissions have been saved and debit it from the total.)
However, beneath all this noise, there is evidence of a rise in genuine alcohol-related diseases. The number of deaths from alcoholic liver disease—a diagnosis that is less prone to statistical fiddling—has risen from just over 3,000 to just over 4,000 in the last decade. This is much less dramatic than the temperance lobby likes to claim (and the rate fell last year) but it is a rise and it is compatible with falling consumption because overall consumption is a poor predictor of chronic alcoholism.
And chronic alcoholism is the issue. Along with those who commit alcohol-related violence, it is the chronic alcoholics who are the real problems. They need help and support while the thugs need punishment. The broad population-based policies of the temperance movement will not address either issue. They are going down the same dead-end of denormalisation that the tobacco control mob have gone down. They will punish the many for the sins of the few while doing nothing for the minority of people who abuse alcohol in a damaging way. Like the imbeciles of the anti-smoking lobby, they are obsessed with an imaginary war with the drinks industry which will do nothing to reduce harm or save lives. If these people were only idiots they would be tolerable, but they are dangerous idiots because their broad brush policies ignore the real problems.