How much do we drink in the UK?

The Government has consistently lashed ‘boozed up Britain’. In a statement released in febrauary, David CAmeron siad that binge drinking “is one of the scandals of our society and I am determined to deal with it. As figures today show the NHS is having to pick up an ever-growing bill – £2.7bn a year, including £1bn on accident and emergency services alone. That’s money we have to spend because of the reckless behaviour of an irresponsible minority”. Then last week he called for a minimum price per unit of alcohol and on Friday Home Secretary Theresa May told the House of Commons today that consultations will be held with interested groups about the price to be set. Cameron’s office said the target is about 40 pence per 10 milliliters of alcohol

Is all this really necessary?

How much do we drink in Britain?

Surprisingly, not as much as you might think.  Average alcohol consumption in the UK is comfortably below the recommended weekly limit of 21 units for men and 14 for women (one unit amounts to a third of a pint of beer or half a standard glass of wine).

The average adult drank 11.5 units a week in 2010 – and that’s a fall of 20 per cent in five years, down from 14.3 units a week in 2005, according to the General Lifestyle Survey published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in early March 2012.

Even more startling is the enws that across the board, in every age group and for both sexes, average alcohol consumption has fallen

It may also come as a surprise that 87 per cent of adults averaged at least three alcohol-free days a week -in line with government recommendations

The ONS figures are based on a survey, but alcohol tax returns released by HM Revenue and Customs also show that alcohol consumption per head fell by 2.2 per cent last year – a 13 per cent drop since 2004

How do we compare with other countries?

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’ s latest figures show that alcohol consumption in the UK is at its lowest since 1999 – at 10.2 litres per capita in 2009

We do drink more than the Americans and the Canadians for example (8.8 litres and 8.2 litres a head respectively), though we’re largely in line with the Australians, Spanish, Finnish, Swiss, Polish and the Danes (all between 10 and 10.2 litres per capita)

Brits however consume less than those at the top of the league – namely the French, Austrians and Czechs (12.3, 12.2 and 12.1 litres per capita respectively)

What about binge drinking?

Binge drinking is defined in the UK as knocking back more than 8 units in one day for men, and more than 6 units in any one day for women

And here’s the real revelation - official figures show that binge drinking is DOWN across all age groups – except for men over 65 (up 1 per cent to 7 per cent of all men over 65; and unchanged at 2 per cent for all women over 65)

Meanwhile, binge drinking among young men and women between the ages of 16-24 has dropped the MOST – down 8 per cent and 10 per cent respectively since 2005

Currently 3.8m or 19 per cent of all men and 2.9m or 13 per cent of all women are categorised as binge drinkers; down from 23 per cent and 15 per cent respectively


Indeed! The ONS’s report found the “most pronounced changes” to drinking levels among 16 to 24 year olds

Among young men, the proportion drinking more than four units (just over a pint) on their heaviest drinking day has fallen by 12 per cent since 2005 – to 34 per cent in 2010. And the proportion drinking more than eight units (two and a half pints) on their big night out is down from 32 per cent to 24 per cent over the same period. And it’s the same for young women; with the proportion drinking more than three units on their heaviest drinking day down by 10 per cent, to 31 per cent in 2010. Meanwhile, the proportion drinking more than six units is also down 10 per cent, to 17 per cent

Average consumption was 11.1 units a week in the 16 to 24 age group – lower than 25-44 year olds at an average of 12.2 units and 45-65 year olds – who drink an average 13.1 units a week

What about the NHS bill?

“Last year there were 1.2 million admissions to hospital associated with alcohol” according to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley on 23 March 2012

At first glance this seems a frighteningly high figure. But his careful wording covers a multitude of sins

To begin with 1.2 million admissions doesn’t mean that 1.2 million individuals are ending up in casualty thanks to booze. One person can be admitted a number of times during the course of an episode of ill health, so the number of people will always be smaller than the number of admissions

It’s also important to note that this number is an entirely notional one based on statistical extrapolation, not on a headcount of actual drunken patients done by doctors and nurses.

Here’s how the figure’s worked out

Analysts decided that a certain fraction of people who, say, fall over and twist their ankle, do so because they are drunk. This may well be true. What the analysts do next is to assign a value based on the estimated likelihood of a certain percentage of injuries or illnesses being caused or exacerbated by alcohol to every patient. So if you fall over and twist your ankle for whatever reason you become a fraction – 0.22 per cent of a single drunk patient. And that number is then multiplied by all the people admitted to hospital for falls

It follows that, if the total number of patients admitted to hospital goes up, then the portion of those admissions theoretically attributed to alcohol automatically goes up too. So the real question is what’s happened to the admissions total

Hard evidence changes the picture. The NHS Information Centre says that, of the 1,057,000 alcohol-related admissions in 2009/10, 265,200 were for diseases or injuries “wholly attributable” to alcohol consumption, rather than based on abstract fractions. And cases where the alcohol-specific condition was the “primary diagnosis”, or the main reason for the admission, totalled just 68,400 in 2009/10. That number HAS gone up in recent years but is far from the 1.2 million quoted ny Mr Lansley

On the same day , the Department of Health announced the details of a Public Health Responsibility Deal – essentially an agreement with the big drinks manufacturers to cut the strength of various lines of beer, wine and cider, and claimed that “Estimates suggest that in a decade, removing one billion units from sales would result in almost 1,000 fewer alcohol related deaths per year.”

The total number of deaths related to alcohol consumption in England has been climbing steadily for years but actually fell for the first time by 2.7 per cent from 6,768 deaths in 2008 to 6,584 in 2009. The main reason was a 5.6 per cent decrease in deaths from alcoholic liver disease

A billion units of alcohol disappearing from the shelves sounds a lot, but it’s about 2 per cent of the total consumed in Britain each year, according to figures from the OECD and the British Beer and Pub Association, who put the annual consumption of alcohol in the UK at 50 billion and 52 billion units respectively

So, rather bizarrely, the DoH appear to think that a 2 per cent reduction in alcohol consumption will lead to a 10 per cent reduction in fatalities. Some mistake, surely, as this makes no sense, but there is apparently an academic basis for the prediction, as the DoH claim that the figures were obtained from “modelling done by Department of Health analysts/economists” based on research into the health effects of alcohol by experts at the University of Sheffield. But this study suggests a 2 per cent reduction in consumption would save fewer than 200 lives. Curiouser and curiouser

So, will imposing minimum pricing work?

The short answer is - no-one knows!

In a little publicised move the Government have already agreed aban on the sale of alcohol below a minimum price in England and Wales from 6 April 2012. Shops and bars will not be able to sell drinks for less than the tax paid on them, for example 38p for a can of weak lager and £10.71 for a litre of vodka

A recent study by Newcastle University  claimed that this would have a limited impact on pricing and thus on binge drinking. Researchers visited 29 city stores and found 2,000 promotions on offer - but only 2% were at below-cost price. “Our results indicate that the current government proposal to ban sales of alcohol at below ‘cost’ price is likely to affect very few products and so would be unlikely to have a substantial effect on purchasing and consumption,” Dr Jean Adams, who led the study, told the BBC.

With reagrd to a minimum price per unit of alcohol, interestingly as leader of the opposition in 2009 Mr Cameron wasn’t keen on this. He said: “It seems to me that what we should do is what we suggested before the last budget, which is to try to target the problem drinkers and the problem drinks.”

In fact the Home Office themselevs have previously been cautious about teh subject, noting that “On balance the evidence shows that increases in alcohol prices are linked to decreases in harms related to alcohol consumption. However, alcohol price is only one factor affecting levels of alcohol consumption with individual, cultural, situational and social factors also influential”

NMTBP agree and doubt that the scenes of chaos often seen on Britain’s streets will disappear anytime soon


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March 26, 2012

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