Northern Ireland alcohol-related deaths hit record high
Action urged as number of cases jumps 30% in 10 years
Record numbers of alcohol-related deaths in Northern Ireland have sparked warnings about the dangers of excessive drinking.
Official figures showed 303 of the 16,036 deaths registered here in 2017 were due to alcohol abuse - the highest level recorded.
This figure has increased consecutively each year since 2013 and represents a jump of 30% from a decade previously - and a 70% rise since records began in 2001.
In total there have been 3,939 alcohol-related deaths in 16 years - 2,697 male and 1,242 female.
Alcohol-specific deaths account for less than 2% of the total deaths registered in Northern Ireland each year.
As in previous years, the number of alcohol-related deaths was higher among males, accounting for 212 (70%) of the 2017 total, compared to 91 females.
The largest number of alcohol-related deaths continues to occur in those aged between 45 and 54 years (959), with 817 recorded in the 55-64 age group.
The data was compiled by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).
The statistics also highlighted how people living in the most deprived areas are four times more likely to die from alcohol abuse than those in more affluent areas.
GP Dr George O'Neill, the chairman of Addiction NI, stressed that the figures reflected changes in wider society.
"There is a pattern emerging among the baby boomers, who seem to be drinking more in their 50s and 60s," he said.
"In contrast, young people are drinking less, so there has been a shift in the age profile of those abusing alcohol.
"While figures for males abusing alcohol are always higher, there has been a significant increase in recent years in the number of female alcohol-related problems and deaths.
"This may be due to losing a partner, redundancy, loneliness or social isolation. Alcohol is seen as a way of coping."
Michael Owen, a drugs and alcohol expert at the Public Health Agency (PHA), said it could be easy to forget that, like so many drugs, alcohol can become addictive, both physically and psychologically.
"It is important that people start to understand their drinking behaviour and explore their relationship with alcohol, whether it's a positive or negative one," he added. "The start of this process is knowing more about units of alcohol, how to calculate your intake and how to stay within the weekly limit.
"The Chief Medical Officer's alcohol guidelines recommend that both men and women should drink no more than 14 units per week."
Ulster Unionist MLA Robbie Butler said a new approach to tackling problem drinking was urgently required.
"Treating alcohol-related illnesses costs the local health service approximately a quarter of a billion of pounds each year," Mr Butler added.
"That is larger than the entire annual revenue budget of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.
"While other countries, such as Scotland, have been able to take real steps to clamp down on excessive drinking, as a result of having no Executive, it would appear inevitable that the problem in Northern Ireland is only destined to get worse."
Alliance health spokeswoman Paula Bradshaw claimed there was a need to break the taboo around alcohol addiction.
"It is sad to read these figures, not least given the poor quality of life the deceased will have experienced in the lead-up to their death," she said.
"Anyone with relatives living with alcohol addiction will know how devastating and incredibly poignant the situation is, recognising so many opportunities lost in their lives to the pain and debilitation of addiction."