The number of admissions reached 1,057,000 in 2009-10 compared with 945,500 in 2008-09 and 510,800 in 2002-03.
Such an enormous leap in the figures should set the alarm bells ringing. A doubling in admissions would be astonishing at any time, but when drinking has been on the decline, it simply defies belief.
But, as the NHS explained when last year's figures came out...
These figures use a new methodology reflecting a substantial change in the way the impact of alcohol on hospital admissions is calculated. Previously the calculation counted only admissions for reasons specifically related to alcohol. The new calculation, for which the methodology is described in the report, includes a proportion of the admissions for reasons that are not always related to alcohol, but can be in some instances (such as accidental injury).
The same note appears on the latest report, but—shamefully—not on the NHS press release that accompanied it. Consequently, it did not get a mention in the news.
Since 2002, the number of diagnostic fields (ie. the category of injury or ailment that people come to hospital to have treated) that are considered 'alcohol-related' has jumped from 7 to 14 and then from 14 to 20. (You can read all about this if you can read the tiny writing at the bottom of table 4.1 in the report).
The significance of this change cannot be overstated. The "proportion" of admissions that are not directly related to alcohol make up three-quarters of the total. It is not only meaningless to compare 2002 against 2009, it is questionable whether most of these cases can reasonably be called alcohol-related at all.
As Nigel Hawkes explains, the figures do not come from doctors and nurses classifying an admission as alcohol-related. Instead, they rely on aggregate data being divided up on a laptop according to a whole set of assumptions.
How is it that almost all the statistics related to alcohol can be moving in the right direction, yet the numbers of alcohol-related admissions keep going up at a dizzying rate?
It’s largely a function of methodology. Alcohol-related admissions are calculated in such a way that if you are unlucky enough, say, to be involved in a fire and admitted to hospital for the treatment of your burns, it will count as 0.38 of an alcohol-related admission – unless you happen to be under 15, when it won’t count at all.
If you drown, it counts as 0.34 of an alcohol-related admission – though most people unlucky enough to drown aren’t admitted to hospital. Getting chilled to the bone (accidental excessive cold) counts for 0.25 of an admission, intentional self-harm to 0.20 per cent of an admission.
These fractions apply whether or not there was any evidence you had been drinking before these disasters befell you.
The one measure that hasn't been twisted and changed is the number of alcohol-related deaths and, as Hawkes says, they fell.
Alcohol-related deaths – that is, those caused by conditions directly linked to alcohol – fell from 6,768 in 2008 to 6,584 in 2009. Much of the fall was attributable to a fall of nearly 250 in deaths from alcoholic liver disease.
That last figure is worth noting, since the claim that liver disease is rocketing is frequently made by temperance crusaders.
If Britain is suffering a drinking epidemic, it is a very peculiar epidemic indeed. It is one that has resulted in an enormous increase in hospital admissions despite a decline in both overall alcohol consumption and excessive drinking. According to the latest figures for 2008/09, it has also resulted in a 3% fall in alcohol-related mortality despite a 12% increase in alcohol-related admissions.
Over the same period, the way alcohol-related hospital admissions have been defined and recorded has changed time and again. It's not difficult to put two and two together here. Any responsible journalist would put the methodological change front and centre of any report.
The irony is that the BBC had, only the day before, exposed the fact that Alcohol Concern Cymru (the NHS-funded Welsh temperance group) had been creating alarm about drinking by inappropriately comparing two different sets of figures:
An alcohol charity claims there a "silent epidemic" of heavy drinking among elderly people in Wales.
AAC said the number of over 65s who said they had drunk more than the recommended maximum in the previous week rose from 22% (men) and 7% (women) in 2003/4 to 34% (men) and 17% (women) in 2009.
However, BBC Wales understands that as a result of changes in methodology adopted by the compilers of the Welsh Health Survey in 2006 the two sets of statistics are not comparable.
Quite right too. And yet, in their report yesterday, the Beeb made no mention of the fact that 2002's figures for hospital admissions cannot be compared with 2008's. Instead, it chose to focus on a press release from the NHS's astro-turf front group Alcohol Concern which predicts that admissions will rise to 1.5 million by 2015.
This is shoddy journalism but, in this instance, the NHS has been complicit in deceiving the media. As I mentioned, the NHS press release did not even hint at the change in methodology, nor did it mention the fall in mortality.
To give you an idea of how incompetent/dishonest (delete as applicable) the NHS has been in this matter, let's take the headline figure. That one million figure relates to admissions, not people. This is an important point because, as Hawkes says in his post, some people go into hospital with multiple admissions and most go in not at all. This is basic stuff, but how are hacks supposed to get this straight when the head of the NHS's statistics department is giving them misinformation?
Tim Straughan, chief executive of the NHS Information Centre, said: "Today's report shows the number of people admitted to hospital each year for alcohol related problems has topped 1 million for the first time."
This is frankly pathetic. The behaviour of the NHS and its spokesmen—not to mention Alcohol Concern—demonstrate once again that their desire to lobby for policies, notably minimum pricing, has made them incapable of issuing reliable and credible information. Time and time again, the British public are being deceived on the issue of drinking. Can we believe anything these people say?