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Researchers say as many as 250,000 people could drink themselves to death over the next 20 years unless the British government tightens its alcohol controls. ((Vincent West/Reuters))

Tens of thousands of people could drink themselves to death in the next two decades unless the British government tightens its control over the use of alcohol, experts said Monday.

In the 1980s, the U.K.'s rate of liver deaths — mainly caused by alcohol — was about 4.9 deaths per 100,000 people, similar to rates in other Western countries including Australia, France, Norway and Sweden.

While the numbers of people dying from liver disease in those countries have either dropped or stabilized since 1986, in Britain the rate of liver disease more than doubled by 2008, hitting 11.4 deaths per 100,000, according to figures from the World Health Organization.

"Few can doubt there is a particular problem in the U.K.," wrote Sir Ian Gilmore of the University of Southampton and colleagues in a commentary published online Monday in the journal Lancet.

Based on current trends and figures, however, they warned there could be as many as 8,900 deaths every year. That would mean up to 250,000 people could be killed by alcohol over the next 20 years.

If the government takes measures to reduce alcohol consumption, the study predicts there would still be 2,500 alcohol related deaths every year by 2019.

The British government has proposed a partnership with industry, local governments and charities.

"We need a whole society approach to tackle the health problems caused by … alcohol misuse," says the Department of Health on its website. "Commercial organizations have influence with and can reach consumers in ways the government cannot."

Some critics disagreed and called for more proactive measures  such as raising taxes on alcohol.

"How many more people have to die from alcohol-related conditions and how many more families devastated by the consequences before the government takes the situation as seriously as it took the dangers of tobacco?" asked Richard Thompson, president of the Royal College of Physicians. He was not linked to the research.

Gilmore and colleagues also slammed the British government for its cozy relationship with alcohol manufacturers, pointing out that representatives from wine and spirits companies sit on a government board in charge of public health.