Health and Social Behaviour: The Effects on Health of Alcohol and Combating the Issue
Alcohol is important to some people for social reasons but drinking above sensible drinking levels is associated with ill-health, crime and disorder.
There are 3 types of drinking:
Table 1: Government recommendations for sensible drinking levels
|Adult Women||Should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units of alcohol a day|
|Adult men||Should not regularly drink more than 4-5 units of alcohol a day|
|Pregnant women or women trying to conceive||Should avoid drinking alcohol. If they do choose to drink they should not drink more than 1-2 units of alcohol once or twice a week and should not get drunk.|
Sensible drinking also involves a personal assessment of the risks and responsibilities of drinking at the time. For example, it is illegal to drink over a certain limit when driving and alcohol should be avoided when taking certain medications.
Table 2: Government guidelines for harmful drinking levels
|Adult Women||Regularly drink over 6 units a day (or over 35 units a week)|
|Adult men||Regularly drink over 8 units a day (or over 50 units a week)|
|Pregnant women or women trying to conceive||Women who drink heavily during pregnancy put their babies at risk of developing fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol disorder.|
3. Binge drinking – drinking too much alcohol over short period of time e.g. over the course of an evening, and it is typically drinking that leads to drunkenness. It has immediate and short-term risks to the drinker and
to those around them. For example, people who are drunk are more likely to be involved in an accident or assault, be charged with a criminal offence, contract sexually transmitted disease and are more likely to have an unplanned pregnancy (women).
Table 3: Government guidelines on identifying binge drinking levels
|Adult Women||Drinking over 6 units a day|
|Adult men||Drinking over 8 units a day|
Many binge drinkers consume substantially more than 6 or 8 units a day, or drink this amount over a short space of time. The government recommends that after a heavy drinking episode, a person should refrain from drinking for 48 hours to allow the
body to recover.
A UK unit is 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. The number of units in a drink depends on what you are drinking (how strong it is and how much there is of it). Half a pint of 3.5% beer/lager/cider is one unit, one small glass (125ml) of wine at 9% is one
unit. Few people are able to estimate accurately how many units they drink. For example, wine often has a greater percentage of alcohol than 9% and a serving is often greater than 125ml.
- There are conflicting data on consumption and trends in alcohol consumption.
- Drinking trends from the General Household Survey (GHS) have shown that alcohol consumption increased between 1960 and 1980 and then stabilised. The consumption of alcohol increased significantly in women and children in the 1990s.
- In comparison, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) excise data for the UK domestic market shows a longer and continuing rise in overall consumption until 2004 followed by a fall in 2005 and 2006.
- The discrepancy in the two data sources is likely to be due to the fact that the GHS data is based on reported number of drinks people remember having in the past week (i.e. people are likely to underestimate) and HMRC data includes all drinks
sold that may not actually be drunk (i.e. drinks not finished or out of date).
- Although best sets of data demonstrate a decline in alcohol consumption nationally, it is still too early to be sure that this is a ‘real’ decrease.
- The incidence of alcohol-related deaths and disease has increased.
- More alcohol is being bought from off-licenses and consumed at home rather than in public houses.
- Drinking over the sensible drinking guidelines is more common in:
- men than women
- young people aged 16-24 than people in other age groups
- areas of high deprivation than people living in areas of low deprivation
Effects on Health of Alcohol
Regular drinking at levels greater than sensible drinking is associated with health risks:
Alcohol related hospital admissions
Hospital admissions for alcohol-related injury or illness where alcohol was the primary or secondary diagnosis include: alcoholic liver disease, mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol, and toxic effects of alcohol.
Alcohol misuse is directly linked to deaths from certain types of disease, such as liver cirrhosis. It may also be associated with other causes of death such as hypertension, stroke, coronary heart disease, and pancreatitis. Men who regularly
drink more than 8 units and women who regularly drink more than 6 units a day raise their risk of having various diseases (see table 4 below)
Table 4: Increased risks of ill health to harmful drinkers
|Condition||Men (increased risk)||Women (increased risk)|
|Hypertension||4 times||2 times|
|Stroke||2 times||4 times|
|Coronary Heart Disease||1.4 times||1.3 times|
|Pancreatitis||3 times||2 times|
|Liver Disease||13 times||13 times|
Alcohol related deaths include alcoholic liver disease (cirrhosis and fibrosis) and alcohol cardiomyopathy.
Alcohol and pregnancy
When pregnant women consume alcohol, the alcohol reaches the baby through the placenta. Babies process alcohol at slower rates than adults and are therefore exposed to greater amounts of alcohol and for a longer period of time. This can seriously
affect a baby’s development. DH recommends that pregnant women and those women trying to conceive should avoid drinking alcohol but if they choose to drink they should not drink more than 1-2 units of alcohol once or twice a week and should not get
drunk. In addition, NICE advises women to avoid alcohol in the first three months of pregnancy because of the increased risk of miscarriage.
See the ‘Know Your Limits’ website for further information of the health effects of alcohol during pregnancy. http://units.nhs.uk/pregnancy.html
Drinking and driving
There has been a huge reduction in the annual number of drink-driving deaths in Great Britain (1,600 at the end of the 1970s to 560 in 2005) but the rate of decline in the past 10 years has slowed significantly.
Crime and antisocial behaviour
- Alcohol misuse may not only harm the drinker but others close to the drinker as well. For example rowdy drunken behaviour can disrupt others and keep people awake at night. Domestic violence, assault or neglect of children can also
be linked to alcohol misuse.
- British Crime Survey (BCS) includes measures of alcohol-related crime and disorder. The survey reports that alcohol-related violent offences have decreased every year since 1995 (except 2003/04).
- Public perceptions of alcohol-related crime and disorder have increased with people thinking that being drunk or rowdy in a public place is a significant problem.
Young People Drinking
- The UK now has among the highest incidences of youth drunkenness.
- Underage drinking and drinking by young adults is perceived as a real problem by the public.
- Young people drinking has shown links with increased:
- injuries whilst under the influence of alcohol (binge drinking)
- youth offending,
- teenage pregnancy,
- school failure, truancy and exclusion and
- illegal drug misuse
- deaths from liver cirrhosis
Combating Alcohol Ill-Health and Crime Using a Wide Range of Approaches
(including health service interventions and broader cultural interventions)
Government Policy and Recommendations
National Government recommendations have been introduced to reduce the alcohol related harms to health, violence and antisocial behaviour whilst ensuring that sensible drinkers are able to enjoy it as part of their social life.
The first cross-government strategy on alcohol, ‘Alcohol Reduction Strategy for England’, was published in 2004. The action plan included a number of key activities outlined in table 5.
Table 5: Activities in ‘Alcohol Reduction Strategy for England’
|1. Better education and communication||
|2. Improving health and treatment services||
|3. Combating alcohol-related crime and disorder||
4. Working with the alcohol industry
Since the initial government strategy to reduce alcohol was introduced in 2004, there has been significant progress. For example, levels of alcohol consumption are no longer rising. There are, however, issues of increasing concern: public concern
about the harm caused by alcohol has risen, and the incidence of liver disease and deaths caused by excessive drinking has continued to increase. In addition, there is evidence that an English ‘drinking culture’ exists, in which binge drinking
and drinking to get drunk are normal behaviour.
The Government acknowledged that further work needed to be undertaken and in 2007 it launched a new strategy, ‘Safe. Sensible. Social’. The strategy identifies 3 key areas:
- Ensure the laws and licensing powers that have already been introduced are being used widely and effectively.
- Focus attention on minority drinkers (e.g. young people under 18 who drink alcohol, 18-24-year-old binge drinkers, and harmful drinkers) who cause or experience the most harm to themselves, their communities and their families.
- Develop an environment that promotes sensible drinking through better information and communication, and by working with those already involved with reducing alcohol related harm.
In addition, the Government highlighted a number of actions that need to be undertaken:
- A sharpened criminal justice system for those committing crime and antisocial behaviour when drunk. For example, offenders will receive facts about unsafe drinking, and offered advice, support and treatment. The Government proposes to introduce
a method which will ensure that those offending will pay for these interventions.
- A review of NHS alcohol spending to improve both national spending and local investment in alcohol prevention and treatment services.
- More help for people who want to drink less, for example, telephone helplines, interactive websites and support groups.
- Toughened enforcements of underage sales by local authorities and police on premises selling alcohol.
- Trusted guidance for parents and young people to help young people and their parents make informed decisions about drinking.
- Public information campaign to promote a new sensible drinking culture. For example, the ‘Know Your Limits’ campaign is intended to expand by promoting sensible drinking and highlighting the physical and criminal harm related to alcohol
- Public consultation on alcohol pricing and promotion which will involve an independent review of the evidence on whether alcohol pricing and promotion cause people to drink more.
- Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships (CDRPs) will be required by law to have a strategy to tackle crime, disorder and substance misuse (including alcohol-related disorder and misuse) in their area by April 2008. CDRPs comprise the police,
local authorities, police authorities, fire and rescue authorities and primary care trusts.
Public Health interventions will involve a coordinated approach across a range of stakeholders, for example, a number of government departments, the NHS, local authorities, the police, voluntary organisations, the alcohol industry, the wider
business community, and the media will need to work together to implement the Department of Health and local alcohol strategies.
The Alcohol Needs Assessment Research Project (ANARP) 2004
Alcohol Misuse Interventions: Guidance on developing a local programme for Improvement 2005
Models of Care for Alcohol Misusers (MoCAM) 2006
- Department of Health (2007). Safe. Sensible. Social. The next steps in the National Alcohol Strategy.
- Department of Health. Alcohol Misuse section. http://www.dh.gov.uk
© Hannah Pheasant 2008