​Research by the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) has found alcohol harm costs England £27.4bn a year.

In the first nationwide analysis of its kind in over 20 years, the latest figures show that there has been over a 40 per cent increase in the cost of harm from alcohol since last calculated in 2003. Tax revenue from alcohol only raises around £12.5bn each year, meaning it is dwarfed by the financial cost of harm.

The economic burden on the NHS now stands at £4.9bn, enough to pay for the salaries of almost half the nurses in England.

Katherine Severi, IAS’s chief executive, said, “Year after year, we have seen steady increases in alcohol consumption, and deaths are at a record high. Now we have data to show that the financial cost of harm has risen too. As a country, we cannot afford to sit back and do nothing. The government should develop a comprehensive alcohol strategy to tackle this rising harm, which would have a knock-on effect of reducing the financial burden too.”

For two decades, the most authoritative estimate of the total cost of alcohol harm came from a 2003 study by the Cabinet Office.

In 2023, the Public Accounts Committee said that the lack of an up-to-date estimate meant the government was “not even in a position to identify an appropriate response” to alcohol harm.

IAS uses the same Cabinet Office methodology and breaks the total cost into the following categories:

  • £4.91bn cost to the NHS and healthcare in England – such as hospital admissions and ambulance call-outs.
  • £14.58bn cost to the criminal justice system, police, and wider crime and disorder.
  • £5.06bn cost to the wider economy due to lost productivity – such as people missing work or being less productive at work.
  • £2.89bn cost to social services.

The figure reflects the ‘external’ cost of alcohol, demonstrating the scale of the harm drinkers impose on others. Across the population, the average cost per head of alcohol harm is £485 a year.

The region with the highest cost per head of alcohol harm was the North East. Every person contributed £562 a year.

Susan Taylor, head of alcohol policy at the regional alcohol office Balance, said, “The North East suffers the worst alcohol harms in the country – and this impact is rising year on year for our people, our streets, our health and our economy. We need real action urgently to tackle this alcohol crisis and ensure that the prosperity of our region isn’t further compromised in the future.”

Ian Gilmore, liver doctor and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said, “This data is published on the same day the Health and Social Care Select Committee is hearing evidence from health experts about how to prevent alcohol harm. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals spend so much of their time treating alcohol-related harms, all of which are preventable. And with the NHS as stretched as it is, it is increasingly important that staff time is dedicated to unavoidable harms. But so much of the UK’s policymaking is in thrall to Big Alcohol, which overplays its economic contribution while underplaying the massive cost of harm. A truly responsible government would understand that tackling alcohol harm should hold primacy over the industry making money for its shareholders.”

In response to the shocking new figures, IAS has called on the government to reflect on the overwhelming evidence base regarding how to reduce alcohol consumption and harm, which would help reduce its economic burden.

The measures they have called for include:

  • Tackling the increasing affordability of alcohol by introducing Minimum Unit Pricing and raising alcohol duty.
  • Restricting alcohol marketing to protect children and vulnerable groups.
  • Empowering local leaders to control the availability of alcohol in areas with high rates of harm.