Published: 11 November 2021
Alcohol Awareness Week is a welcome opportunity for us all to have a conversation about our alcohol use.
As we continue to live with the realities of COVID, concerning trends are emerging about the use of alcohol.The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted much of people’s drinking from pubs and restaurants to their own homes, with many reporting an increase in both the amount and frequency of their alcohol use. Increased alcohol use during this time is associated with poorer mental health, suggesting that people are using alcohol to cope with feelings of anxiety, loneliness and isolation. Alcohol deaths have reached a record high during the COVID-19 pandemic with deaths caused by alcohol in England and Wales increasing by 16.4% from January to September 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019 (Holmes & Angus, 2021).
This is having a significant impact on our health services. A study of hospitalisations in Ireland during the first wave of COVID-19 found that there were increases in emergency alcohol-related admissions (Marron et al, 2021). A study in Beaumont Hospital found a 30% increase in admissions for liver disease over the 18 months from the first lockdown.
International research is also emerging on increased alcohol use among healthcare staff, with one study in the USA with over 1,000 healthcare physicians finding that 43% had probable alcohol use disorder during COVID-19 (Hennein et al., 2021). We know from the SARS outbreak that there can be long-lasting mental health consequences of pandemics, and higher levels of alcohol problems for staff with the highest exposure or who needed to be quarantined (Braquehais et al., 2020).
Whilst it is best for our immune systems and health more generally to avoid alcohol altogether if you do drink, the HSE’s weekly low-risk alcohol guidelines are less than
- 11 standard drinks for women
- 17 standard drinks for men
EU Alcohol Awareness Week 15 - 19 November 2021 is the 9th annual awareness week on alcohol-related harm.
Webinar: Alcohol’s impact on the immune system and brain
- The HSE Alcohol Programme is hosting a webinar on Thursday 18 November at 3 pm.
- The webinar will focus on Alcohol's impact on the immune system and brain.
- Learn about how alcohol can suppress your immune system, reduce your ability to fight off infections, and how alcohol has a profound impact on the brain, with new large-scale evidence using MRI scans showing the impact of even low alcohol use.
- Register for your place here
Self assessment tool
A significant contributor to the rise in alcohol use is the affordability of alcohol. A recent survey by Alcohol Action Ireland found that Irish women can drink their weekly alcohol limit for as little as €4.95 and men for just €7.65.
However, it is hoped that the introduction next January of the Minimum Unit Pricing on Alcohol will help everyone to cut back on their alcohol use.
Minimum Unit Pricing on Alcohol
What is it and what will it mean for me?
Minimum unit pricing (MUP) is being introduced as part of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 from the start of January 2022. It is one of a number of public health measures being introduced under this legislation, all aimed at reducing the harm that alcohol causes to our society.
MUP sets a minimum price for a gram of alcohol, meaning it cannot be sold for less than that price. It doesn’t matter where the alcohol is sold – off-license, supermarket, bar or restaurant – the minimum price stays the same.
Why is minimum unit pricing being introduced?
- Alcohol is a major cause of illness and disease, hospitalisations, self-harm, and violence in Ireland. It’s better for everyone if, as a country, we cut back.
- In 2019, on average, every person in Ireland aged 15 and over drank 10.8 litres of pure alcohol a year – the equivalent of either 40 bottles of vodka, 113 bottles of wine or 436 pints of beer.
- Research by the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group found that when minimum unit pricing on alcohol is introduced in Ireland, alcohol consumption is expected to reduce by almost 9% overall.
What is the minimum unit price?
In Ireland, one standard drink in Ireland contains 10 grams of alcohol. The minimum price for one standard drink will now be €1. Most alcoholic drinks are already above this, especially in pubs, clubs and restaurants.
Some examples of a standard drink are a pub measure of spirits (35.5mls), a small glass of wine (12.5% volume), and a half pint of normal beer.
For example, a 12.5% bottle of wine has 7.4 standard drinks and from January 2022, cannot be sold for less than €7.40.
Minimum unit pricing on alcohol prevents strong alcohol from being sold at low prices.
How do we know it will work?
In 2018, Scotland became the first country in the EU to bring in minimum unit pricing on alcohol. Alcohol purchases in Scotland reduced by 7.6% in the year after it was introduced. This is the lowest level of alcohol sales since records began in the early 1990s.
Research has also shown that moderate drinkers were affected very little; it has had the greatest impact on harmful drinkers. It is estimated that it will save more than 2,000 lives in Scotland over 20 years.
Research on minimum unit pricing in Canada has also shown that it reduces alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm, including alcohol-related diseases, deaths, crime, and health service use.
Why not use a tax instead?
People drink more alcohol if it is cheap. Increasing the price of alcohol will reduce the amount of alcohol that is purchased and this will improve our health. There are different approaches to increasing the price of alcohol, such as through tax. If you raise taxes for alcohol, you are raising the cost of alcohol for everyone. A minimum unit price only targets the cheapest alcohol. For low-risk drinkers, like those who are already drinking within the low-risk alcohol guideline, the change will largely go unnoticed.
Who will it affect the most?
Minimum unit pricing most impacts people who are drinking alcohol harmfully. It is designed to target the heaviest drinkers who seek the cheapest alcohol, which means it will have the greatest effect among those who experience the most harm. These drinkers also suffer greater harm from alcohol and therefore stand to gain more in terms of health as a result of reductions in drinking.
But what is a heavy drinker?
A heavy drinker is someone who regularly drinks more than weekly low-risk alcohol guidelines. These are 11 standard drinks for women and 17 standard drinks for men, spread out over the week and with at least two to three alcohol-free days per week. A heavy drinker is also someone who regularly drinks more than six standard drinks on one occasion.
Reduction in alcohol consumption amongst people considered to be heavy drinkers following MUP
The heaviest drinkers are expected to reduce their alcohol consumption by 15%, while people who already drink within the low-risk drinking guidelines are expected to drink 3% less.
The heaviest drinkers buy the cheapest alcohol. Minimum unit pricing on alcohol targets these drinkers, reducing its affordability so that less alcohol is purchased. This will reduce the harm that alcohol causes them and others.
This should result in around 200 fewer alcohol-related deaths and 6,000 fewer hospital admissions per year.