Rise in ‘severe’ alcohol use, say experts

Growing numbers of people have developed a “severe” alcohol problem by the time they seek treatment, an official report shows.

The Health Research Board (HRB) said this makes treatment more complex and recovery more difficult.

Publishing their latest alcohol treatment figures, the HRB said that while the number of treatment cases for alcohol has reduced over the last seven years, a far greater proportion have the most serious form of abuse.

  • The report also shows:

  • Women have similar rates of alcohol dependence to men;
  • Increases in cases among those who are employed and people who are homeless;
  • One in five cases report polydrug use — with sharp increases in cocaine use (particularly among men);
  • Benzodiazepines (tranquillisers) and opiates (such as heroin or methadone) are more common additional drugs among women, while cannabis and cocaine are more common among men

The National Drug Treatment Reporting System report shows that there were a total of 55,675 cases involving alcohol treatment between 2011 and 2017. In that period, the number of cases has fallen from a high of 8,876 in 2011 to 7,350 in 2017, marking a continuing decline over that period, with a slight drop from 2016 (7,643).

In contrast with that trend, there has been a sharp increase, particularly in percentage terms, in cases where the person is dependent on alcohol. The total number of dependent cases (new and previously treated) rose from 5,215 in 2011 to 5,290 in 2017. These cases accounted for 60% of all cases in 2011, rising to 72% of all cases in 2017.

Moreover, researchers found that, among new cases, the number of people already dependent on alcohol stood at 67% in 2017, compared to 50% in 2011.

“We can see a continued increase since 2011 in the percentage of new cases who were already dependent on alcohol when they present to treatment for the first time,” said Suzi Lyons, senior researcher at the HRB.

“This means that more people are presenting when the problem is already severe which makes treatment more complex and recovery more difficult.”

Alcohol dependence is the most serious form of abuse, followed by harmful drinking and hazardous drinking. The report shows a rise in cases involving homeless people, from 549 (6% of cases) in 2011 to 620 (8%) in 2017. There has been a substantial rise in those with jobs — from 1,777 cases (20%) in 2011, to 2,056 (28%) in 2017.

There has been a significant reduction in cases involving those under 18, from 335 in 2011, to 112 in 2017. Travellers account for 1.6% of all cases, even though they account for just 0.7% of the population.

Among the 20% of cases where alcohol is taken along with other drugs, the report said that cannabis was the main one. Although cases involving cannabis have fallen, from 1,149 to 878, they account for 60% of cases.

Cases involving cocaine have risen sharply, from 486 (29% of all cases) in 2011 to 607 (42%) in 2017.

Benzodiazepines are the next most used drug (23% of cases), followed by opiates (14%). Cannabis use is higher among males than females (64% v 48%) as well as cocaine (44% v 34%). Benzodiazepine use is higher among women (28% v 21%) as is opiate use (20% v 12%).

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