The drinking habits of the British are taking an increasing toll on their lives, according to figures showing that alcohol-related deaths soared in the past five years by 18.4 percent.
The (opposition) Liberal Democrats, who obtained the numbers from the UK's Office for National Statistics, called for a rethink of the Blair government's strategy on pub opening hours as they revealed that the increase in deaths in some regions was higher still.
The biggest hike was in Yorkshire and Humberside, where deaths related to drinking rose by 46.5 percent. In 2000, the region had 428 alcohol-related deaths, but 627 people died from drink last year.
Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrats home-affairs spokeswoman, questioned the wisdom of the government's strategy on licensing hours.
"These figures are deeply worrying," she said. "The government must address the underlying reasons why people are drinking themselves -- literally -- to death."
"I am worried that the proposed change to licensing laws will add to this startling increase in drink-related deaths. The government should pause for more thought before it brings in the changes to the licensing laws in November," she said.
The British charity Alcohol Concern said the figures were deeply worrying and urged the government to think beyond its obsession with binge-drinkers whose noise and violence in the early hours offends the public and swamps accident and emergency departments.
The new figures concern problem drinkers, who may or may not be binge drinkers.
"If they want to make changes to this sort of trend, they need to look at investing in specialist alcohol services," said Geethika Jayatilaka, director of policy and public affairs.
The second highest increase in deaths between 2000 and last year was in the northeast, where they rose by 28.4 percent, but from a lower base of 335.
The highest number was in the north-west, where there were 950 deaths in 2000 and 1,179 last year, an increase of 24.1 percent. The southeast had the second-highest death toll, at 842 last year, followed by London with 772 and then the West Midlands, with 750.
The total number of deaths across England and Wales rose from 5,525 to 6,544.
These figures include only deaths from alcohol-related disease, such as cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis and accidental alcohol poisoning, which can be a consequence of binge drinking.
If deaths in which alcohol-related violence are a factor are counted, such as stabbings and car accidents, the numbers are vastly higher. The government uses a global figure of around 15,000 to 22,000 deaths a year, which includes around 1,000 suicides.
Alcohol Concern said the figures were alarming but predictable because 8 million people a year drink above safe levels, which the government lays down as around 14 to 21 units a week for women and 21 to 28 units for men. A unit is equivalent to a standard glass of wine or half a pint of beer.
"The increase in alcohol-related deaths is deeply worrying but rather sadly, not surprising," Jayatilaka said. "Alcohol consumption has been rising for the last 50 years in the UK."
Increasing affluence in the postwar era and the entry of women into the workplace in larger numbers triggered a drinking culture which has steadily grown.