NI alcohol deaths are ‘tip of the iceberg’

Whisky, wine and beer on a bar Image copyright Getty Images

The number of officially recorded deaths related to alcohol is the tip of the iceberg, a coroner has said.

Joe McCrisken was speaking at a joint inquest into the deaths of four people as a result of alcohol abuse.

Three of the deaths occurred on the same day last March.

The coroner said he was taking the unusual step of holding all four hearings together to try to show the real damage and dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.

One of the deceased died at the age of just 36. The court heard he would drink about 100 tins of beer a week.

NI alcohol-related deaths

He developed a problem with alcohol while dealing with mental health issues. He died of acute pancreatitis and alcohol-induced liver disease.

‘Chronic alcoholism’

Giving evidence at the inquest, State Pathologist Dr James Lynas was asked if it was unusual for a 36 year old to die of liver disease.

“Unfortunately, it isn’t particularly rare,” he said.

“We are seeing a good number each year. We see people dying in their 20s from chronic alcoholism.”

He added that alcoholism affects all levels of society.

“This is a disease that straddles all parts of society from the wealthiest and most privileged to the most disadvantaged areas as well,” he said.

Another of the deceased, a 48-year-old man, died of acute alcohol intoxication.

Tests revealed his blood alcohol level was 554mgs/100mls – seven times the legal drink-drive limit and the highest level the coroner said he had ever come across in his career. The fatal level is considered to be above 350 mgs.

Northern Ireland coroner Joe McCrisken has previously spoken out about the rate of alcohol and drug-related deaths in Northern Ireland.

The latest figures published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) have shown that there were 303 alcohol related fatalities here in 2017, the highest on record and nearly 30 per cent more than a decade ago.

While men still account for the majority of deaths, between 2013 and 2017 there was a 65% increase in female alcohol-related deaths.

But the Coroner said the official figures underplay the problem. They don’t include the part alcohol plays in deaths involving accidents, certain cancers, car accidents, and even house fires.

“We have a problem with alcohol use and abuse here, we know that,” he said.

“The thin end of the wedge is the 303 reported deaths in 2017 as we know that vastly underplays the role alcohol consumption plays in deaths here and also in terms of the sheer weight of resources that have been deployed to address these issues, at A&E, in Gps surgeries, and in homes.”

Alcohol pricing

In May 2018 a law came into force in Scotland that set a minimum price for drinks depending on how many units of alcohol they contained.

But the collapse of the Assembly in January 2017 has hampered attempts to have similar legislation being introduced in Northern Ireland.

Image caption Joe McCrisken has previously said he believes alcohol misuse is the “greatest healthcare problem facing Northern Ireland”

The coroner said he was closely following the Scottish government’s decision to increase the alcohol price per unit to see if that impacted on the number of deaths there.

But without a devolved government, such a decision could not be taken here.

“I hope we get a devolved government soon in Northern Ireland because there are so many issues that could be focussed on by various ministers and I hope that happens soon,” he said.

If you’ve been affected by addiction, help and support is available at BBC Action Line.


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