Is alcohol abuse costing the NHS £2.7 billion a year?

Published: 15th Feb 2012

"As figures today show the NHS is having to pick up an ever growing bill - £2.7 billion a year, including £1 billion on accident and emergency services alone".

Prime Minister David Cameron,15 February 2012

The Prime Minister has pledged today to introduce measures to deal with what he calls "one of the scandals of our society". Mr. Cameron lamented the rising cost of alcohol abuse to the NHS. In particular he commented on the expense incurred by our accident and emergency services - currently priced at £1 billion a year.

The Prime Minister's statistics are from a study by the Department of Health into the cost of alcohol harm to the NHS in England. The report shows that while the cost of alcohol abuse in 2003 was £1.7 billion, by the time the report was written in 2008 the price had risen to £2.7 billion a year.

The latest NHS information centre study on alcohol statistics (May 2011) reiterates the figures from the report. Again, it claims the NHS spends £2.7 billion combating alcohol abuse each year.

Both the Department of Health and the NHS report provide a breakdown of the expenditure:

According to the figures, the NHS spends £645.7 million per year on accident and emergency visits and £372.4 million on ambulance services.

Mr. Cameron appears to have summed these figures to conclude that £1 billion of the £2.7 billion spent annually on alcohol abuse is spent on accident and emergency services.

However, it should be noted that, despite being re-used by the NHS Information Centre, the figures still date back to 2008, and are estimates at best. They may or may not reflect the current costs faced by the NHS. 

UPDATE (17/02/2012)

Since our orignal article was released, Straight Statistics raised some concerns over the methodology behind the Prime Minister's figures.

Full Fact investigated the matter further and found that while the £2.7 billion cost quoted by Number 10 dated back to a DH report from 2008, Mr. Cameron's 200,000 hospital admissions related to alcohol abuse is based on figures from 2010.

Straight Statistics pointed out that there is a contradiction in using hospital admissions figures from 2010 but costs from 2008. Indeed, if we are assuming these figures are comparable, the cost to the NHS of hospital admissions both partly and directly due to alcohol should be roughly £290 million rather than the £1.2 billion shown in the table below. 

 

The number of hospital admissions used to calculate the £2.7 billion back in 2008 remains somewhat unclear. Both the DH and the NHS were contacted in attempt to discover whether the £2.7 billion was based on admissions where the primary or secondary diagnoses were wholly or partially attributable to alcohol (802,066) or on admissions where only the primary diagnosis was wholly or partially atributable to alcohol (179,700). Neither of the sources were able to provide us with a definitive answer. 

While we know that the 200,000 figure for current hospital admissions related to alcohol is a measure of primary diagnoses only, without knowing which of the 2008 admissions figures the £2.7 billion is based on we are unable to say how accurate Mr. Cameron's cost estimate is.

Moreover, as the graph above shows, the cost of alcohol abuse to the NHS is based on many other factors, not simply hospital admissions. Until more research is carried out it remains very difficult to estimate the exact cost of alcohol abuse to the NHS in 2012.

Nevertheless, Mr. Cameron's use of figures from different time periods is concerning and puts a question mark over his £2.7 billion price tag for 2012.

Full Fact will be keeping an eye out for any more data which might shed light on the issue. 


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