Hazardous drinking habits formed during pandemic unlikely to change

·4-min read
The switch to drinking at home has been partly blamed for the rise  (Shutterstock/Africa Studio)
The switch to drinking at home has been partly blamed for the rise (Shutterstock/Africa Studio)

Millions of Britons are causing themselves “silent harm” through hazardous drinking, while the nation’s alcohol habits will not go back to pre-pandemic levels, according to an expert from the Royal College of Psychiatrists

New data from the Government’s Office for Health Improvement and Disparities shows millions of people in England are downing bottles of wine, beers and spirits that are harmful to their health, with a big jump in the numbers drinking at levels considered to be high risk.

Professor Julia Sinclair, chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the switch to drinking at home was partly to blame for the rise, with drinking sessions sometimes lasting several hours longer than they would in a pub.

The official data, based on monthly YouGov surveys with each month involving at least 1,700 people, shows:

  • Some 18.1 per cent of adults in England were drinking at increasing or higher risk in the three months to the end of October 2021 – equating to almost eight million people.

  • This is much higher than in February 2020 before the pandemic hit, when 12.4 per cent of the population or around six million people drank at these levels. In October 2019, just 11.9 per cent or around five million people, were drinking at this level.

  • A quarter (25.2 per cent) of adult men (about 5.5 million people) were drinking at increasing or higher risk levels in the three months to the end of October. This is the joint highest figure in the dataset and is significantly higher than the 17.8% (about four million people) in February 2020.

  • Among women, 10.1 per cent (around 2.3 million) were drinking at increasing or higher risk levels, up from 7.3 per cent (around 1.6 million) in February 2020.

Increasing or higher risk drinking is defined by the alcohol use disorders identification test (audit) used by professionals, which asks questions about people’s drinking habits.

It looks at how often people drink, how many units in one session, whether they ever feel guilty and whether they sometimes miss out on usual activities due to drinking.

The NHS recommendation is that adults consume no more than 14 units of alcohol per week.

Prof Sinclair said the latest data showed people were still coping with uncertainty and anxiety caused by the pandemic while some had formed habits involving alcohol.

Asked if the current drinking levels could be considered the “new normal”, Prof Sinclair said work carried out with the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group had found “the best-case scenario would be that suddenly everyone goes back to drinking as they were doing at 2019 – but we’ve sort of discounted that because people aren’t going to do that.

“So, our best, most realistic, scenario is that the higher-risk drinkers go back over the next probably five years to normal risk drinking – back to where they were.

“But people won’t just suddenly flip back to where they were – none of us suddenly flips back.

“What we’re going to see is that some people who were perhaps drinking at a higher risk but weren’t physically dependent will have pushed themselves into being physically dependent, and they’re not the group who can suddenly wind back from this.

“What was really clear was that just even nine months of drinking, as we saw in 2020 (first year of the pandemic), was enough to push a whole load of people over the edge.”

Prof Sinclair said that “some people who never drank except when they went out or went to the pub” are now drinking at home.

Many people have not yet reached the stage where they realise they have a problem and are causing themselves “silent harm”, according to Prof Sinclair.

Prof Sinclair said people tend to accrue harm from alcohol throughout their 30s, 40s and 50s.

“Like everything else in life, you can get away with it when you’re 20 and 30, it gets harder in your 40s and by the time you’re 50 and 60 actually, just because you’ve been doing it all your adult life doesn’t mean to say you can still do it now,” she said.

She said patients were now coming into hospitals in a “much more severe” state.

“We’ve had more patients going into delirium tremens – the really kind of life-threatening part of alcohol withdrawal – who end up in intensive care,” she said.

“I have seen more people in our hospital in that state than I’ve seen in the six years prior to that.”

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