Up to 210 000 people in England and Wales will be killed prematurely by alcohol over the next 20 years, with a third of those preventable deaths due to liver disease alone, health experts warned.
Other alcohol-related deaths will be due to accidents, violence and suicide, or from chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, strokes, heart disease and cancer, the experts warned in a projection study in the Lancet medical journal.
Yet Dr Ian Gilmore, former president of the Royal College of Physicians and one of the lead authors of the work, said it was "entirely within the power of the UK government" to take steps to tackle Britain's alcohol problem and "prevent the worst-case scenario of avoidable deaths".
The experts pointed to measures taken in the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, which they said saw alcohol consumption fall by a third in two years with a resulting 12% drop in the rate of alcohol-related deaths.
Not only a British problem
The warning comes after British Prime Minister David Cameron promised last week to crack down on excessive drinking; calling it a "scandal" that costs the taxpayer-funded National Health System an estimated R33 billion a year.
Alcohol abuse and the harmful health effects of heavy or binge drinking are not only a British problem, but take their toll in many other mainly wealthy nations around the world.
A study last week found that 7.5 million children in the United States – more than 10% of the child population – live with an alcoholic parent.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), some 2.5 million people die each year from the harmful use of alcohol, accounting for about 3.8% of all deaths worldwide.
Steps to curb alcohol use feature three times in the WHO's top 10 "best buys" for public health policies to reduce the burden of chronic diseases.
The UN health body says restricting access to alcohol bought at retail outlets, enforcing bans on alcohol advertising and raising taxes on alcohol would have an enormous health impact.
Britain's Cameron said last week he would look at the issue of alcohol pricing but has so far stopped short of agreeing to set a minimum price. His government is due to set out a new alcohol strategy later this year.
Lobbying from drinks industry
The new projection is a slight improvement on what the same team of researchers predicted a year ago, when they suggested a worst-case scenario of up to 250 000 avoidable alcohol-related deaths over the following 20 years. But while they acknowledged that any improvement is good news, the authors said this small change was hardly causing for celebration.
Gilmore, who worked with Dr Nick Sheron from University Hospital Southampton on the alcohol death forecasts, questioned whether Cameron's government could "afford to duck effective action on alcohol" that would "have such a positive impact on crime and disorder, work productivity, and health."
"The UK government will have to withstand powerful lobbying from the drinks industry, but the potential prize of reversing this tragic toll of alcohol-related deaths is there for the taking," the two doctors wrote.
(Kate Kelland, Reuters Health, February 2012)
Read more:Worldwide war on binge drinking