Alcoholic liver disease taking its toll on the young
By Richard Bilton
Liver disease is now the country's fifth biggest killer and cases of alcoholic liver disease in the under-30s have risen by half in the past 10 years, says the Department of Health. The coalition wants a "drink strategy" with input from both the health lobby and the drinks industry, but can they work together?
Victoria White began drinking heavily as a teenager
Victoria White was lying in a bed at Liverpool's Royal Hospital, her skin yellow in colour, her belly badly swollen and her life hanging in the balance.
Ms White's liver disease is the result of heavy drinking.
She began drinking as a teenager and before her most recent hospital stay she had been consuming at least a bottle of brandy a day.
Doctors say her case is not unusual. According to government figures, a quarter of the adult population are thought to be drinking too much alcohol.
"Some people go their separate ways from alcohol. I didn't, I just carried on with it. You are selfish through drink. As long as you are all right, you just do not care," Ms White said.
Her mother, Debbie White, has watched alcohol slowly take over her daughter's life.
"When she was about 16 she started lying saying she had not had a drink but you could smell it on her. We would start finding bottles of vodka, bottles and bottles of cider hidden under her bed," she said.
ALCOHOL ABUSE - THE TOLL
50% rise in alcoholic liver disease in under-30s since 2001
70% of peak time admissions at the Royal A&E alcohol-related
£400 - average in-patient costs per day
£2.7bn - annual cost to NHS of alcohol-related care
One in four adults drink more than recommended
9m people in the UK affected by alcohol abuse
Ms White was hospitalised in the past because of alcohol and nearly died five years ago. She was warned then that she needed to stop drinking.
"I was OK at first. I would just have a couple and leave it and then as the days went to weeks I just started drinking again. And here I am today," she said from her hospital bed.
In agreeing to be interviewed in such ill health, she urged others to learn from her mistakes.
Ms White's doctor, liver specialist Paul Richardson, said his colleagues are seeing similar cases of irreparable damage.
"Both locally and nationally, people who work in hepatology have noticed an increase in alcoholic liver disease in a younger population," he said.
Overall consumption is falling but alcohol-related hospital admissions have doubled in a decade.
Follow the night shift at the Royal's A&E department
In 2010, there were more than a million admissions, according to hospital statistics.
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore is chair of the UK Alcohol Health Alliance, which campaigns to increase awareness about alcohol.
"It's very difficult to know why our culture has changed so radically, but all the evidence suggests that the big drivers for the amount people drink are the price, the availability and the marketing and that is what we have been trying to push governments to look at."
FIND OUT MORE
Richard Bilton presents Panorama: Dying for a Drink
BBC One, Monday, 1 August at 8.30pm
The health and financial costs of alcohol abuse led the coalition government to create a working group that included both the drinks industry and the health lobby.
Brokering a strategy has been challenging.
Health groups, including the British Medical Association, decided to withdraw from the government's consultation process in March, citing the influence of the drinks industry on policy-making.
Anne Milton, the Minister for Public Health, said she was disappointed by their decision. "I am sad that people stopped talking to us because it is never productive," she said.
Gavin Partington of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said the industry is very willing to help limit alcohol abuse, and large companies are increasingly aware of their social responsibilities. "It is important for them to be seen to implement policies that are going to be tackling what is a very real problem."
But he said the industry believes in voluntary codes of practice rather than legislation to limit the availability, price or advertising.
He also added that people consuming dangerous and irresponsible levels of alcohol are in the minority.
The government's alcohol strategy report is expected later this year.
Panorama: Dying For A Drink, BBC One, Monday, 1 August at 20:30 BST and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.