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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 22nd March 2012

Whenever I’m asked about what plant causes the highest death toll I always cite Nicotiana tabacum, tobacco, with plants that are used to produce alcohol coming second. But, some news stories published today have led me to realise that it can be difficult to get a clear idea of just how many deaths are due to alcohol and whether there is an upward trend in the number.

This morning’s news on the TV had an item about the increase in deaths in England resulting from liver disease. The number of such deaths resulting from alcohol and the ages of people dying from alcohol-induced liver disease were the main points covered.

I was sure I’d seen another report, quite recently, about alcohol-related deaths so I didn’t know if the story was about new data or a reworking of previously published figures.

Today’s news was taken from a report by the NHS’s National End of Life Care Programme entitled ‘Deaths from liver disease: Implications for end of life care in England’. The coverage of this report was all quite similar so I’ll just cite a couple of examples.

For the Guardian the headline was ‘Alcohol abuse contributes to big rise in deaths from liver disease’ while the BBC had ‘Liver disease deaths reach record levels in England’  The BBC story referred specifically to ‘new NHS figures’ but all the media gave the impression that these death figures were entirely new data.

Figures for alcohol-related deaths were published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS)  on 26th January 2012. That report looks at all causes of alcohol-related death but notes that 64% of those deaths are the result of Alcoholic Liver Disease. The report published today takes the data for deaths from liver disease regardless of the underlying cause and analyses it to inform discussions on the implications for the NHS in England in dealing with these deaths.

Because of the way services are organised, the ONS report looks at England & Wales together whereas the NHS is divided between England and Wales and today’s report refers only to England.

I decided to see the difference in attention given to the two reports. The search term ‘alcohol deaths’ in Google News produced 2,750 results for today’s date but only one for the period from 26th January to the end of the month.

That one result, a story from the BBC was headlined ‘Alcohol deaths increase slightly’ and pointed out that, for the UK overall, the trend has been flat since 2003. Today’s report, however, says that ‘The number of people who die from liver disease in England is rising’ and says there was a 25% increase in liver disease deaths from 2001 to 2009.

The ONS says that about 64% of alcohol-related deaths in England and Wales are Alcoholic Liver Disease which is about 4270 just in England and the NHS says about 37% of all liver disease deaths are due to alcohol which is about 4280 so the two reports seem to be in agreement on the number of deaths due to Alcoholic Liver Disease but I not sure why one enable the conclusion of a flat trend for alcohol-related deaths and the other gives a 25% increase in liver disease deaths. One possible answer seems to be the difference in start point. The ONS shows that, for men aged 55-74, there was a steep rise in the rate per 100,000 of population from 2001 to 2003 but since that date the number has varied only slightly.

Given the difference in coverage between the two reports, it does seem that the media wants stories about how much worse health problems are becoming due to alcohol but if that line relies on an increase that happened ten years ago it makes it possible for the drinks industry to argue that the problem is being exaggerated by those who want to ‘punish’ responsible/moderate drinkers by introducing a minimum unit price.