This is a plain English summary of an original research article
This NIHR-funded study found that local authorities in England that were more active in the use of their alcohol licensing powers saw a greater reduction in alcohol-related hospital admissions. The more active local authorities were in reducing access to alcohol, the greater the drop in admissions.
Local authorities have two main powers that can be used to address public health issues over alcohol – they can refuse licence applications and implement “cumulative impact areas”, sometimes known as “saturation zones” or “stress areas”. Authorities that did both, between 2007 to 2012, had a 5% greater fall in alcohol-related admissions between 2009 to 2015 compared to those who did neither.
A trial to test the observed association would provide stronger evidence of effect. Nevertheless, the results from this large study may encourage authorities and their Directors of Public Health to consider more active licensing enforcement.
Why was this study needed?
Alcohol abuse costs the NHS in England about £3.5 billion pounds a year. In 2013/14, 114,920 adults received treatment for alcohol dependency, and about 1 million for alcohol related problems. It is estimated that around nine million adults in England drink at levels that pose some risk to their health. But alcohol abuse is not just a healthcare issue. In Leeds in 2008/9 it was estimated that alcohol abuse cost the city £438 million, only £56.8 million of which was in health and social services, the rest was on crime, lost productivity and wider societal costs.
A recent study in Scotland showed an association between the number of alcohol outlets and alcohol-related hospitalisations. Local authorities have powers to address public health concerns over alcohol consumption. They can refuse individual licence applications and implement “cumulative impact areas”. These are areas where the authority can restrict new alcohol outlets, both off- and on-licence, because of concerns over the impact of already existing outlets (see Definitions tab).
The NIHR funded this study to examine whether authorities that were more active in licensing enforcement, through the use of cumulative impact areas and refusing licence applications, had fewer alcohol-related hospital admissions. Both powers are aimed at limiting the ease of access to alcohol, so the authors hypothesised that more active authorities would see fewer admissions.
What did this study do?
Three hundred and nineteen eligible local authorities in England were rated according to how active they had been in licensing enforcement from 2007 to 2012. They were rated as passive, low, medium or highly active. Broadly speaking, authorities that had neither assigned cumulative impact areas nor refused any licensing applications over the five years were scored as passive, up to those who had implemented both throughout each of the five years, who were considered highly active.
Activity ratings were compared to alcohol-related hospital admissions from 2009 to 2015. Alcohol-related admissions include alcohol liver disease, ethanol poisoning, oesophageal cancer and diseases caused by high blood pressure. Public Health England use this disease list to monitor trends in alcohol related harm. Admissions were only counted when the primary diagnosis was alcohol-related. Accident and Emergency admissions were not included.
Data on alcohol-related crime rates, population size and deprivation were used to control for confounding factors. Studies of association such as this cannot prove causality, but can identify patterns worthy of further investigation.
What did it find?
- Authorities with more active licensing enforcement witnessed a greater reduction in alcohol-related hospital admissions. The most active authorities had an additional annual average reduction of 2% in alcohol-related admission rates, or about eight admissions averted per 100,000 people in 2015, compared with what would have been expected had they been passive since 2007.
- Larger reductions in admission rates were observed in authorities with more active licensing enforcement, indicating an “exposure–response” association.
- A little over a third (37%) of authorities had some form of active alcohol policy in 2007/2008. Just 19% of local authorities were coded as have a medium level of licensing enforcement activity, and 16% were coded as having high activity.
What does current guidance say on this issue?
NICE 2010 guidelines on preventing alcohol-use disorders says that making it less easy to buy alcohol, by reducing the number of outlets selling it in a given area and the days and hours when it can be sold, is an effective way of reducing alcohol-related harm. They recommend that revising legislation on licensing should be considered to ensure that licensing departments can take into account the number of alcohol outlets in a given area and times when it is on sale and the potential links to local crime and disorder and alcohol-related illnesses and deaths.
What are the implications?
The association between licensing enforcement and drop in alcohol-related hospital admissions does not prove causality. The exposure-response relationship could be because authorities with the most active enforcement are also the most proactive in adopting other alcohol policies. These may range from late night levies, where authorities charge premises that have a late-night alcohol licence, to alcohol screening and brief interventions.
The authors made a number of efforts to correct for confounding factors. For example baseline deprivation, population size and alcohol-related crime data were used to correct for the fact that alcohol policies tend to be introduced in areas with greater levels of alcohol-caused harm. The study also looked at the trends over five years, rather than taking a “snapshot” in time, adding credibility to the observed association. The authors were unable to use A&E data, because they weren’t collected in HES (Hospital Episode Statistics, a database of admissions to NHS hospitals in England). Nevertheless the results indicate a potential, longer-lasting benefit of licensing enforcement.
These results contribute to the evidence of effectiveness of population-level alcohol licensing policies. They are the first to show that the intensity with which alcohol licensing policies are implemented is associated with a fall in alcohol-related hospital admissions. Ideally the next step would be to trial different approaches in a random selection of authorities. The results may encourage authorities and their Directors of Public Health to consider a more active approach to licensing enforcement.
de Vocht F, Heron J, Angus C, et al. Measurable effects of local alcohol licensing policies on population health in England. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2015 Nov 10. [Epub ahead of print].
This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research School for Public Health Research (NIHR SPHR).
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