Ticking timebomb for future

WITH the capacity for heavy drinking seen as a badge of honour by many young adults, health services are bracing themselves for an explosion in alcohol-related illnesses.

By Colin Adwent

WITH the capacity for heavy drinking seen as a badge of honour by many young adults, health services are bracing themselves for an explosion in alcohol-related illnesses.

In the third of our series on the growing problem of alcohol, Dr Amanda Jones of Suffolk Primary Care Trust reveals the booze time-bomb. COLIN ADWENT reports.

MORTALITY rates are soaring today, due to society's passion for alcohol and our seemingly oblivious attitude to the savage damage it causes.

Unless things change drastically, the medical profession is doomed to be increasingly submerged by booze-related conditions in the years to come.

Latest government statistics show that since 1997 the number of deaths in Suffolk where alcohol has been the primary cause, has risen from 37 to 56 a year.

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Dr Amanda Jones, Suffolk's deputy director of public health, is acutely aware of the dangers for the future if something is not done to stem the alcoholic tide, particularly among the young.

She said: “Alcohol misuse can be, and always has been, potentially a serious problem. Over the past ten years it seems the potential for it to have serious long-term effects in our society has increased.

“Most people enjoy alcohol without causing harm to themselves or anybody else.

“Having said that, if people do drink too much alcohol they can harm their health through accidents, injuries or violence in the short term or in the longer term heart disease, cancer or strokes.”

According the medical journal The Lancet, a survey in 2006 which looked at the effects of alcohol in Scotland between 1987 to 1991 and 1997 to 2001 showed the death rate in men had more than doubled because of booze.

In England and Wales it had increased by 69pc over the same period.

Although the rise of alcohol-related deaths in women was less, they had still gone up in Scotland by 46pc and by 44 pc in England and Wales.

Dr Jones said: “It shows that over the last few decades the amount we are drinking is causing serious problems to our health. In the short-term there is no doubt people go to accident and emergency departments with injuries resulting from alcohol.

“We also know there is a lot of crime related to alcohol. Alcohol consumption is producing large problems for our society. Young people are a real problem as well.”

In 2004 a quarter of 11 to 15-year-old had drunk alcohol in the last week according to one survey.

“Young people drink less often than adults, but when they do drink they tend to drink large amounts.

Binge drinking has also become an increasingly worrying phenomenon over the past two decades and has reached worrying levels.

Dr Jones said 20-30 years ago attitudes were different. Now, many young adults go out with the mindset of getting drunk.

“Thirty per cent of 15 to 16-year-olds reported binge drinking on at least one occasion in the previous month. The message is no one is trying to stop people drinking. There's nothing wrong with enjoying alcohol in moderation, but misuse actually is a serious problem.

“Although many young people now drink in an uncontrolled way at times, they do drink less often. They don't tend to drink every day like older adults, but we know that when they are under the influence it has a much wider effect. It has an affect on crime, anti-social behaviour and sexual behaviour. It has led to a rise in sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies.”

To illustrate the point Dr Jones said there has been a three-fold rise in chlamydia in the past ten to 15 years.

The recommended maximum number of units for females in a week is 14, while the figure for men is 21 units.

Drinking six units for women and eight units for men in one sitting is defined as binge drinking.

Dr Jones said: “The Office of National Statistics states 35pc of men between the ages of 16 to 24 and 27pc of women from the same age group drink more than eight units or six units respectively on at least one day in the previous week.

“Twenty one units a week for a male, means if you drink three units an evening that's not a problem. If you drink 21 units in one day it becomes a problem because you are going to be far less in control of yourself.”

Although peer pressure may also play a part in the rise of hard-drinking young adults, Dr Jones said it would be wrong to say it has a major impact.

“It has always been part of life. However, the potential effects of getting someone to drink too much alcohol have serious consequences that people don't understand, particularly young people.

“You are not being a responsible adult or a friend if you give in and buy some for them.”

Fighting to stem the tide has not proved particularly successful over the past few years, especially with the advent alcopops and shots.

“We have still got a long way to go. For instance, the growth of alcopops which are focused on the younger age group, encouraging young people to drink.

“Pushing the market to younger and younger age groups is not something that's going to benefit those age groups. We, as a society, allow that to happen. There are things all of us have to consider.

“Individual agencies are very limited in what they can do. What we need to do is work jointly. We need a comprehensive strategy which allows us to address all aspects including education, crime and treatment.

“It is very difficult to influence, but there's no doubt the ambulance trust have done various audits and they consider about ten per cent of calls are from people who have had too much to drink. If people were not drinking in an uncontrolled way those calls would not have occurred. The same for people going to A & E.

“It uses up resources that other people could be using in terms of ambulances and hospital services. We want to try and address it and we are working with others to do just that.”

N See tomorrow's Evening Star for what's being done locally to help people with alcohol problems.

NATIONALLY the rate of alcohol-related deaths in men which could have been prevented has doubled since 1993, latest figures reveal.

A report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) this month also found the rate among women has gone up 67 per cent.

The 2005 rates are for men and women under the age of 75.

In 1993, 1,776 men and 1,049 women died from alcohol-related disease which could have been prevented.

In 2005, the figure was 3,884 for men and 1,873 for women.

The rate went up from 7.3 men per 100,000 population in 1993 to 14.4 per 100,000 population in 2005.

In women, the rate went from four per 100,000 in 1993 to 6.7 per 100,000 in 2005.

Levin Wheller, who presented the data, said the figures were more likely to reflect long-term heavy drinking leading to problems like cirrhosis of the liver than short-term binge-drinking.

A spokesman for Alcohol Concern said: "These figures demonstrate that patterns of increased drinking are beginning to have serious public health implications.

"A recent World Health Organisation report identifies alcohol as the third highest risk to health in developed countries.

"It's time for the government to start investing more in early interventions to lessen the chance of the problem spiralling out of control."

Health officials have also voiced concern about over alcohol abuse after it emerged that the number of booze-related deaths in East Anglia had risen sharply.

Aside from government figures showing deaths in Suffolk had rising from 37 to 56 a year in the past ten years, the figure in Norfolk has increased from 50 a year to 81 and in Cambridgeshire from 32 to 48.

Some of the main causes include alcoholic psychoses, liver disease, chronic hepatitis, pancreatitis, alcohol poisoning and degeneration of the nervous system because of alcohol.

The alarming figures come amid evidence of rising alcohol sales and booze-related admissions to hospitals. Health officials say the relevant agencies must do far more to highlight the very real dangers posed by drinking too much.

Peter Brambleby, former head of Norfolk Primary Care Trust and a Norwich-based public health consultant, said: “I think, as the figures would show, this has become a huge problem, not just in terms of law and order but in general. It is an increasing public health issue, and the different agencies are going to have to pull together and look at how they can tackle this.

“All the figures are pointing to a rising tide, and unless something is done this will only continue.”