Irish Times – State could save €80m a year in health costs if alcohol consumption halved

If Irish people halved their current alcohol consumption to the upper limit of recommended drinking levels, the health costs to the exchequer for hospital beds would drop by €80 million a year, according to newly-published research.

Prof Joe Barry, co-author of a study published in the Irish Medical Journal , was commenting on results showing the cost of hospital inpatient beds due to alcohol was more than €850 million over five years.

The study is the first to calculate both the direct and indirect cost of alcohol as measured by the number of bed days required to treat alcohol-related disease using an internationally recognised system of quantifying the full impact of alcohol consumption.

Dr Barry, professor of public health at Trinity College Dublin, said yesterday: “If we take €850 million as the cost for five years and if we were able to bring down national alcohol consumption levels by a half, then we could save at least €400 million on hospital bed costs alone.

“At €80 million a year, that is almost the cost of the current shortfall in the Fair Deal nursing home scheme.”

Co-authored by Dr Jennifer Martin of the Department of Health and Dr M Skally of the National Cancer Registry, the research shows the number of bed days were “many times” higher than previously calculated. For the first time it includes the number of bed days partly and fully attributable to alcohol.

For example, while the cost of cirrhosis of the liver may be fully attributable to alcohol, many cardiovascular diseases can be partly attributed to overdrinking. In addition many cancers are known to be at least partially due to alcohol intake.

This latest research, which does not include hospital treatment costs, drug costs or the cost of primary and community care attributable to alcohol, found that almost 9 per cent of total hospital bed days were due to drinking. Some 4 per cent of bed days were due to acute conditions associated with alcohol, such as road traffic incidents and assaults, while 96 per cent were attributable to chronic conditions associated with alcohol overconsumption. These included heart failure, epilepsy and depression.

“The protective effect of low alcohol consumption levels, mainly evident in preventing cardiovascular disease, against hospitalisations was seen only in older age groups,” the authors note. This may be because of relatively high levels of binge drinking in Ireland, they suggest.

A previous estimate by the chief medical officer of the Department of Health placed a figure of €1 billion a year on the saving that could be achieved by a 30 per cent reduction in alcohol-related harm in the Republic.

Source: The Irish Times – 09.06.11
Journalist: Dr Muiris Houston