Total consumption in the UK
Figure 1 below displays the long-term trends in UK alcohol consumption since 1980. The latest available data estimates total alcohol consumption in the UK at 9.4 litres per head for those aged 15 years and older and 7.7 litres per head on average throughout the entire population in 2013.
This forms part of a recent downward trend from a peak of 11.6 and 9.5 litres per head respectively in 2004.
Figure 1: UK Total Alcohol Consumption, litres per head, 1980 – 2013
Source: British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA)
Recorded UK alcohol consumption per head for drinkers 15 years of age and over first hit double digits in 1997, rising to a peak of 11.5 litres in 2004. 2012 was the first year in which recorded UK adult alcohol consumption fell below 10 litres per head since 1999. Recorded UK alcohol consumption in total has remained broadly in line with trends in adult consumption, also peaking in 2004 at a high of 9.5 litres per head, before declining to 8 litres in 2012.
It is important to note that these figures do not take into account the levels of unrecorded alcohol consumed. For instance, the National Audit Office (NAO) estimates that the tax gap for beer duty accounted for up to 14% of the UK market in 2009-2010.
Unrecorded alcohol consumption in the UK includes the consumption of homemade or informally produced alcohol – legal or illegal – smuggled alcohol, alcohol intended for industrial or medical uses, alcohol obtained through cross-border shopping (which is recorded in a different jurisdiction), as well as consumption of alcohol by tourists. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates UK unrecorded alcohol consumption to be approximately 1.7 litres per head (for the population aged 15+ years).
Data on alcohol consumption comes from a variety of sources. Every year, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) publishes a compilation of drinks industry statistics incorporating data from producers, retailers and other relevant sources on alcohol production, as well as government figures on the revenue accrued from UK sales of alcoholic beverages, collected by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) also provides data on alcohol consumption in the UK, in conjunction with the Health & Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC). Alcohol consumption figures were published in the annual General Lifestyle Survey (GLS)* until its discontinuation in 2012. Subsequent data appear in Opinions & Lifestyles Survey releases. Statistics on Alcohol publications also offer an insight into the demographic distribution of alcohol consumption throughout England, as do the Health Survey England reports.
By its own admission, the ONS states that:
Obtaining reliable information about drinking behaviour is difficult, and social surveys consistently record lower levels of consumption than would be expected from data on alcohol sales. This is partly because people may consciously or unconsciously underestimate how much alcohol they consume. Drinking at home is particularly likely to be underestimated because the quantities consumed are not measured and are likely to be larger than those dispensed in licensed premises.
If this is the case, then it can be assumed that official statistics on the consumption of alcohol are conservative estimates. Data collected by HMRC can be seen as more robust than self-reporting via surveys in that it shows the actual volume of alcohol bought and sold. However, this too cannot be seen as wholly representative of UK alcohol consumption as it does not include unrecorded alcohol.
* The General Lifestyle Surveys provided a snapshot of the habits and attitudes of nearly 8,000 families and people living in private households in Great Britain
 Sheen, David (August 2013), 'Statistical Handbook 2013', British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), London: Brewing Publications Limited, p. 28