UK Continues to Wrestle with Health Consequences of Drink and Drug Use
Posted on Feb 14, 2014 by Ruth Loftus
Abuse of alcohol and other substances remains a grave problem for health care across the United Kingdom. Recent investigations have suggested that use of alcohol and so-called legal ‘highs’ in the UK are so serious that the country risks becoming the addiction capital of Europe. Despite efforts to improve matters, much more needs to be done to bring the problems under control.
Drink and drug abuse are estimated to cost the UK some £36 billion per year. At a time when, despite government exhortations to provide improved services for addiction treatment, many local authorities have experienced cuts to funding for such activities.
It has been revealed that 52 people died as a result of taking one of the ‘legal high’ substances and one in 12 young people said they have used these substances which is the highest proportion in Europe.
The UK also appears to be the centre for trading in these drugs with more 130 web sites known to be offering them for sale and in effect using the national mail services as drug mules. The substances are typically marketed as ‘bath salts’ or ‘research chemicals’ and they can therefore be sold legally as long as they are labelled "not for human consumption".
When consumed however, these substances have been known to lead to permanent damage to the bladder, blood poisoning and even death. The need for a much more rapid means of dealing with these substances is also an issue. As many as 150 new substances which offer legal highs have appeared on the market in the last three years but the Government has only been able to remove 15 from sale.
When it comes to the most socially accepted drug, alcohol, the situation in the UK is particularly grim. The incidence of alcohol dependence among British men placed the country at number two in western Europe, while women exhibit the highest dependency levels in Europe.
A quarter of adults have drinking behaviours that could be classed as harmful, and 5% were judged to be "dependent drinkers". Northern parts of the country show the most acute prevalence of alcohol induced problems with almost 90% of the alcohol-related hospital admissions being located in the north of England.
Other recent research into the extent and implications of alcohol related problems in the UK has revealed that it is among the middle aged that drink and drug use is presenting grave problems.
Of some 500,000 people admitted to hospital over the last three years as a consequence of abuse of alcohol or other drugs, almost a quarter were in their forties. For many of these people, the need for hospitalisation results from excessive use of alcohol and/ or drugs over many years. The issue is most dramatic among poorer people (which supports the statistics above to the extent that the north of England is generally a less prosperous area than the south).
Overall some 10% of all emergency hospital admissions are a result of alcohol or drug related matters but for those aged between 40 and 49, the statistic doubles to some 20%.
The analysis suggests that people born in the 1960s who may have become users of alcohol or drugs in their teens and continued with this pattern of behaviour are now suffering the consequences. The fact that there is also an upward trend in ‘abuse related’ admissions for those now in their thirties suggests they too may experience increasing problems as they grow older.
Problems related to sustained over indulgence in alcohol continue to persist more frequently in Scotland than in England. The association of addiction problems with relative poverty is one contributory factor as is a deeply imbued culture that has always seemed to endorse heavy alcohol consumption.
Statistics reveal that some 20 people per week die of alcohol related causes in Scotland. This actually represents a fall over the recent past, but it is still twice the level of only thirty years ago and it is also significantly higher than in other parts of the UK. Alcohol sales are almost a fifth higher than in England and Wales with more consumed away from licensed premises. There also a concern that the recent fall may just reflect the economic downturn and be a temporary phenomenon.
In Scotland, the government is seeking to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol as a central feature of its programme to control abuse. This initiative is being challenged through the courts by the alcohol producers and is an approach from which Government in England recently stepped away.
Unfortunately, the need to address deeply ingrained habits of alcohol abuse across the United Kingdom and will remain a huge priority – particularly given the contribution that excess alcohol makes to long term medical conditions such as heart disease and cancer.