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Almost 400,000 in the North East are drinking more since Covid

Alcohol - not the answer

Alcohol - not the answer

Posted 10/11/20

Nearly 400,000 people in the North East have been drinking more since Covid – with the majority at levels likely to put their health at risk.

That is the latest research into drinking habits as a new campaign from Balance launches across the North East.

“Alcohol – Not the Answer” highlights that alcohol can weaken our immune system against infectious diseases like Covid , contribute to low mood and anxiety, and cause cancer, stroke and heart disease. People can visit for tips and free tools to help cut down.

The timing is aimed at reversing a worrying trend seen across the region and the country. A survey from October found that nearly 1/5 (18.6%) of people in the North East (around 397,640 people) are drinking more since Covid and of those, over 3/4 (79%) are increasing and high risk drinkers. Nationally, it was estimated that 8.4 million people are drinking at high risk levels, up from 4.8 million in February .

The campaign is being run by Balance and funded by the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care System and by local authority public health teams across the North East.

Colin Shevills, Director of Balance, said: “The last eight months have been a worrying and stressful time, but using alcohol to cope is not the answer. We all need to be as fit and resilient as we can be right now for ourselves and our families.

“It may be shocking but the World Health Organisation has warned that alcohol can harm the body’s immune system, meaning there may be an increased risk from the virus. This is about a right to know.
“We are encouraging people to take more drink free days and try to stay within no more than 14 units a week. Keeping alcohol in check is an important way to protect our overall health and fitness for the time when we emerge from this crisis.”

Dr James Crosbie, a GP and consultant gastroenterologist at South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, is also Clinical Lead for Alcohol for the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care System. He said: “It is very worrying that we have seen an increase in people drinking at high risk levels and this campaign is a timely wake up call.

“People are understandably worried about money, jobs, and the impact on families from Covid, and in these sorts of times alcohol use can creep up. I think many people recognise that our relationship with alcohol has become more unhealthy and dangerous over the last eight months.

“With alcohol there are short and long term risks. Alcohol is a depressant, associated with low mood, depression and anxiety which can have an impact on wellbeing, family and work.

“Alcohol affects the immune system and makes us more susceptible to infections like coronavirus, and longer term it is linked to 7 types of cancer, heart disease and stroke. Alcohol is also full of calories and can cause weight gain, which increases our risk during the pandemic.

“If you have recognised you are drinking more, that is good first step and cutting down can improve your feelings of positivity, the risk of infections and other risks we all want to avoid. A good way to cut down is to have more alcohol free days and limit drinking to no more than 14 units a week.”

A routine visit to the GP gave hairdresser Graham Carter, 59, the wakeup call he needed to make changes to his lifestyle, including cutting down on alcohol.

Graham, who lives in Sunderland, is backing Balance’s campaign to highlight the health harms of alcohol. He said: “A few years ago, I went along to my GP for a routine annual check-up. When my blood test results came back, they showed early signs of a pre-fatty liver – an indication that I could have problems with my liver in the future or that I could get diabetes. Although I was reassured it was an early sign, it gave me a shock.

“Drinking alcohol had become a daily habit. I decided to make some changes and cut down on alcohol, so I stopped drinking on work nights. I stuck to a couple of glasses only at the weekend and started to feel fitter and healthier.”

Last year, Graham underwent surgery to remove his gall bladder but was rushed back into hospital a few days later when he had a heart attack. The shock of his heart attack has made him even more determined to keep up a healthy lifestyle. “Before my health scares, I thought I was invincible. I know a lot of people say the same, but I genuinely never thought it would happen to me.

“Although I have recovered from my heart attack and I’m feeling much better, it’s on my mind and I want to do all I can to be around for my family. I believe my old lifestyle had an impact on my health. I did like a drink, but I don’t miss it now. I feel healthier, brighter and more alert, and I’m more productive at work.”

The North East experiences the country’s highest rates of alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions in the country.

Chief Medical Officer guidelines for alcohol are that men and women over the age of 18 should not drink more than 14 units a week to keep health risks from alcohol low, and take several drink free days a week. 14 units means around six pints of regular strength beer or lager, six standard glasses of wine or seven double measures of spirits a week.

Here’s how alcohol can affect us:

Immune system:
• Alcohol use, especially heavy use, weakens the immune system and reduces the ability to cope with infectious diseases such as coronavirus
• Alcohol will not stimulate immunity and virus resistance – it will not destroy the virus

From the World Health Organisation

Cancer: alcohol raises the risks of at least seven types of cancer – of the breast, bowel, mouth, larynx, oesophagus, upper throat and liver. See more at

Heart: Drinking can have a harmful effect on your heart. Alcohol can cause abnormal heart rhythms and damage to your heart muscle. See more information about alcohol and cardiovascular disease from the British Heart Foundation.

Stroke: alcohol can increase your risk of stroke, even if you don’t drink very large amounts. And if you’ve had a stroke, alcohol could increase your risk of another stroke. This is because alcohol contributes to a number of medical conditions that are risk factors for stroke, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, being overweight, an irregular heartbeat and liver damage. See more information about alcohol and stroke from the Stroke Association

Blood pressure: Regularly drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure to unhealthy levels which can lead to other serious health conditions. High blood pressure is the most important risk factor for stroke. More than 1 in 4 adults nationally are living with high blood pressure. See more information about alcohol and hypertension from the Stroke Association

Mental health
Alcohol is sometimes used by people to try and help manage symptoms of anxiety and depression, but excessive drinking is likely to make those symptoms worse. Managing your drinking and getting the right support are crucial to good mental health. See Alcohol Change.

About 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year .

And also:

Liver: Drinking too much alcohol over a long period of time means the liver doesn’t get a chance to recover. This can result in serious and permanent damage. Alcohol is the leading cause of liver disease in the UK, which is the biggest killer of 35 to 49-year olds .

Many people aren’t sure about the number of calories in their drinks but reducing your drinking is an important way to help you lose weight.

Being overweight can lead to many serious health conditions and can increase your risk of heart and circulatory diseases such as heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes and vascular dementia. Visit

Social distancing: Alcohol can blur the lines when it comes to social distancing. It is more important than ever to keep track of our drinking to protect ourselves and others.

Cutting back:
If you reduce your drinking, your body and mind will thank you. Reducing your drinking can reduce your risks, do wonders for your waist-line and bank balance and generally make you feel lots better in yourself.

Staying within 14 units a week is the best thing we can all do to keep our risks from alcohol low to stay healthy right now. 14 units a week means around six pints of regular strength beer or lager, six standard glasses of wine or seven double 25ml measures of spirits.


1. Try not to stockpile alcohol. Limit the amount of alcohol you buy in and opt for non-alcoholic drinks to help you stay within the 14 unit low-risk weekly guidelines.
2. Having at least three drink-free days every week is a great way to cut down on how much you’re drinking. Visit to download the free Drink Free Days app from Public Health England.
3. Think about being a good role model to your kids around alcohol, which includes how often and how much you drink alcohol. None of us want to teach our children that it’s normal to drink every night or to start each day at 4pm.
4. You can track your units, calories and money saved when you cut down or cut out alcohol through the Try Dry app from Alcohol Change.
5. Use a measure to pour your drinks – home-poured measures are often a lot more generous than those you’d get in the pub and contain more units and calories than a standard measure.
6. If you feel like you should cut down, you’re in good company. An estimated 1 in 3 North East drinkers cut down or stopped drinking alcohol during the spring / summer lockdown.
7. If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, it can be tempting to turn to alcohol to help you relax. But here are some top ways to unwind from Alcohol Change UK that don’t involve alcohol
8. When it comes to alcohol and young people, parents often find it confusing to know what to do for the best. The safest option is to follow the Chief Medical Officer guidelines that it is safest and healthiest for children to not drink before the age of 18. For advice every parent needs to know visit
9. Finally, if you are concerned about your own drinking or someone else’s, call the national alcohol helpline Drinkline on 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am–8pm, weekends 11am–4pm).