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Booze is blighting our nation, says George Best’s surgeon

9 February 2006

Britain is facing an alarming increase in alcohol-related problems, warns a UCL (University College London) consultant who is launching a study into the possibilities of using new antibodies in the treatment for liver failure. Speaking today at a public lecture in London, Professor Roger Williams, Director of the UCL Institute of Hepatology and physician to George Best, warns that a hike in alcohol prices, health labelling on bottles and other measures are urgently needed to stop Britain from ‘tippling to the point of toppling’.

Professor Williams says: “It’s ironic that we worry about the toxicity of synthetic chemicals, but have few qualms about swallowing large quantities of a poison known to us as ‘alcohol’, which can do all kinds of damage to our organs, from the brain to the liver.

“Alcohol consumption has doubled in Britain since the 1960s. Today, a quarter of the adult population - around 11 million - binge drink regularly. Binge drinking, which is consuming more than six to eight units in a single sitting, means the liver and other organs are flooded with a poisonous substance at levels that overwhelm the body’s normal defence mechanisms.

“A quarter of all A & E admissions are related to excess drinking and the cost to the nation is estimated at £7.3 billion a year for alcohol-related crime alone, plus a public health bill of £1.7 billion per year. In the last ten years, deaths from cirrhosis have doubled, where cirrhosis now causes more deaths in men than Parkinson’s Disease.

“France and Italy have more than halved their alcohol consumption over the time that it has doubled in the UK, and if we are unable to reverse this trend we will have failed the next generation.

“The number of under 18s admitted to hospital has gone up 15 per cent over the last decade, while the number of children buying alcohol illegally has doubled in the last 15 years. Around 30,000 teenagers face criminal conviction for being drunk and disorderly each year but more worryingly, deaths from cirrhosis are rising in younger age groups, with people in their 20s and 30s now being treated for liver failure.

“Long-term damage to the body includes loss of brain function, painful inflammation of the pancreas – one of the worst pains that people can experience – and head and neck cancers, on top of a range of liver disorders leading to liver failure. The good news, however, is that if you bring your drinking under control your organs can recover, though they rarely go completely back to normal.

“Around £250 million is spent on alcohol advertising each year compared with £1 million spent on public health information by the Government. We must invest more in health warnings and measures such as labelling on bottles and in pubs.

“Prices and easy access to alcohol both have an effect on drinking behaviour. Alcohol consumption rose by 50 per cent in Finland after beer was made available in grocery shops, while in New Zealand, wine consumption rose by 16 per cent after supermarkets began to sell wine. Conversely, one study suggests that a ten per cent rise in UK alcohol prices would lower cirrhosis mortality rates by seven per cent in men and eight per cent in woman, while victims of homicide would drop by five per cent in men and seven per cent in woman.

“People are often confused about what a unit of alcohol actually is, and many may be unaware of how much they drink over a week and whether this is within safe limits. I urge everyone, especially young people, to keep a diary. Write down each day how many units you consume. You may be surprised to find that you drink more than the recommended weekly limit, which is 14 units for women, 21 units for men and up to 4 units for pregnant woman.

“If you compare your traveller’s allowance for a trip to the continent, there is an 800 cigarette limit equivalent to a 40-day supply for heavy smokers. For alcohol, you can bring back 10 litres of spirits, 20 litres of fortified wine, 90 litres of table wine and 110 litres of beer – the equivalent of a 270-day supply for a heavy drinker.”

Professor Williams and colleagues at the UCL Institute of Hepatology are starting a study into the possibilities of using new antibodies in the treatment for liver failure.

Notes for Editors:

1. For more information, please contact Jenny Gimpel at the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9739, mobile: +44 (0)7990 675 947, e-mail: j.gimpel@ucl.ac.uk.

2. ‘The Spreading Canker of Alcoholism’ lecture is on Thursday 9 February 2006 at 1.15pm in the Darwin Lecture Theatre, Darwin Building, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT

3. For more information about UCL Lunch Hour Lectures, please visit http://www.ucl.ac.uk/registry/events/lhl/

4. A small (125ml) glass of average strength wine, half pint of ordinary beer or single measure (25 ml) of spirit is equal to one unit of alcohol. A large (250ml) glass of average strength wine, bottle of alcopop (300ml) or pint of ordinary beer is equal to two units. A can (440ml) of premium or super strong beer is between 3.5 and 5 units.