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UK alcohol consumption

Figure 4 below displays the long-term trends in UK alcohol consumption since 1980. The latest available data estimates total alcohol consumption in the UK at 9.5 litres per person aged 15 years and older and 7.8 litres per person on average throughout the entire population in 2015.[1] This forms part of a recent downward trend from a peak of 11.6 and 9.5 litres per head respectively in 2004.


 

Recorded UK alcohol consumption per head for those 15 years of age and over first hit double digits in 1997, rising to a peak of 11.6 litres in 2004. 2011 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 falling to 7.8 litres in 2015.

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). The ONS Opinions and Lifestyle Survey asks those who drank in the previous week how much they drank on their heaviest drinking day of the week.

In 2014, 29 million people aged 16 years and over reported that they had drunk alcohol in the week before interview. 8.2% (2.4 million) of them claimed to have consumed alcohol above the recommended weekly guidelines on their heaviest drinking day in that week.[2]

The most recent survey shows men are nearly three times more likely to drink above the weekly unit guidelines of 14 units (as stated in the Chief Medical Officers' advice) than women on their heaviest drinking day (11% compared with 4%, see figure 5a).

 


 

Of those who drank alcohol in the last week, just over a quarter (27%) were classified as binge drinkers.** Figure 5b categorises the proportion of binge drinkers by sex and age.

 


 

 


 

Figure 7a shows that most drinkers drank on at least one occasion in the week, and just one-in-ten did so at least five days in that week.

 


 

Trend data show that the frequency of drinking is on the decline. The proportion of men drinking weekly has fallen at a faster rate than women in the past decade, although it remains higher (figure 7b). In 2015, 63% of British men and 51% of British women were reported to have had an alcoholic drink in the last week. 12% of men and 7% of women claimed to have done so on five or more days in the week.

 


 

In contrast, just over a fifth of those surveyed reported abstaining from alcohol entirely in 2016 (figure 8).

 


 

Figures 9a, b, and c show how drinking habits differ according to socioeconomic factors.

As a proportion of the whole population, those in employment are most likely to drink at least once in the week (62%) leading up to interview. Figure 9a shows that economically inactive people (a group represented by students and the retired) are most likely to drink on at least five days in that week (12%), but are also most likely to abstain from drinking (30%). Unemployed drinkers are most likely to binge drink (39%) on the heaviest drinking day in the week.

 


 

Figure 9b shows that of those in employment, the managerial and professional classes drink most frequently (12%). Although routine and manual workers are most likely to abstain from drinking (20%), they are also most likely to binge drink on the heaviest drinking day in the last week, highlighting a greater disparity in drinking behaviours compared with other workers.

 


 

Figure 9c illustrates a positive correlation between income and the frequency of alcohol consumption. The proportion of those who drink at least once in a week is lowest among low-income earners (45% of those earning under £9,999.99), rising to 77% for the highest income earners (those earning £40,000 or more). Low-income earners are also least likely to drink on at least five days in the week (7%); those on the highest incomes are most likely to do so (13%). Although the range is small (six percentage points), the proportion of drinkers who binge drank was lowest among low-income earners.

 


 

It also shows a negative correlation between income and abstinence; the proportion of teetotal low earners is highest in the lowest incomes bracket (29%), falling to 9% for those earning £40,000 or more.

Wine was the most popular drink of choice for 46% of Britons on their heaviest drinking day of the week in 2016. Wine and beers were the most popular drink of choice for 48% of Britons who binge drank. Figure 10 shows that when split by sex, women were most likely to consume wine on their heaviest drinking day of the week (60% drinkers and 70% of those who binge drank), whereas men were most likely to drink normal strength beer / stout / lager / cider (67% and 53% respectively).

 


 

Figure 11 demonstrates the increasing disparity between on and off-trade consumption that has occurred since the turn of the 21st century. On trade consumption among adults in the UK – drinking alcohol purchased from venues such as pubs, nightclubs, and hotels – has declined by 1.9 litres since 2000, from 4.9 to 3 litres of pure alcohol per person (pp) aged 15 years and older in 2014. In contrast, off-trade consumption – drinking alcohol purchased from retailers in a domestic capacity – has increased 0.7l over the same period, from 5.6 in 2000 to 6.3 litres per person (pp) in 2014.

 


 

Off-trade consumption reached a peak of 7.2l of pure alcohol pp in 2007/8, and now stands at more than twice the level of alcohol consumed in the on-trade. 2008 so far marks the biggest difference between on and off-trade consumption levels this century (3.6l).

Much of the shift of alcohol purchases to off-licence premises has been attributed to the increasing affordability of alcohol sold by the major supermarkets. One market research data company calculated that off-trade alcohol sales came to £11.6bn in the 12 months to August 2014, and indicated that the offers of bargain priced wines and champagnes from discount chains was partly responsible – sales through Aldi and Lidl in particular rose 25.4% over the period.[3]

According to international data, the average UK drinker consumed 13.8l alcohol (defined as beer, wine or spirits) in 2010. Across all EU member states, Polish drinkers were found to consume the most alcohol at 24.2l. Romania (21.3l), Portugal (22.6l), and Lithuania (23.6l) were the other nations where average consumption levels among drinkers exceeded 20 litres.

 


 

The concentration of alcohol consumption in Poland is very narrowly concentrated among 52% of the adult population. In the UK, drinking is concentrated among four-fifths of all adults.

At the other end of the scale, Italy was the only country where the average drinker consumed fewer than 10 litres of alcohol.

Unrecorded alcohol consumption

It is important to note that the official 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.[4]

The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes unrecorded alcohol as:

 

… alcohol that is not taxed and is outside the usual system of governmental control, because it is produced, distributed and sold outside formal channels. Unrecorded alcohol consumption... includes 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.[5]

 

As a result, it is difficult to calculate the actual amount of alcohol consumed. The most recent WHO estimates believe UK unrecorded alcohol consumption to amount to approximately 1.2 litres per head for the population aged 15+ years.[6]

Underestimation

Alcohol taxation data collected by HM Revenue & Customs can be seen as more robust than self-reporting via surveys in that it shows the actual volume of alcohol bought and sold. This is also true of alcohol sales data collected privately by market research companies, as they enable a more objective and accurate estimate of alcohol consumption, compared with self-reported surveys.

However, estimating alcohol consumption using sales data is subject to its own biases and limitations, and is therefore not wholly representative of UK alcohol consumption. These include: retailer non-response; wastage and spillage; non-inclusion of some alcohol sales outlets; consumption by tourists; and unrecorded alcohol. The overall impact of these biases is such that actual population levels of consumption are likely to be underestimated.[7]

Given these limitations, the ONS admits 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.[8]

 

On measuring alcohol consumption, the Public Health England report ‘The Public Health Burden of Alcohol and the Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of Alcohol Control Policies: An evidence review’ states:

 

It is widely acknowledged that household surveys underestimate population level alcohol consumption with estimates suggesting they record between 55% and 60% of consumption compared with actual sales. Retrospective analysis reports the discrepancy to be 430 million units a week, equivalent to a bottle of wine per adult drinker per week.[9]

 

If this is the case, then it can be assumed that official statistics on the consumption of alcohol are conservative estimates.

** The Government's Alcohol Strategy defines binge drinkers as men who report exceeding eight units of alcohol on their heaviest drinking day in the week before interview, and women who report exceeding six units.

 

Previous: A good measure: Units and guidelines


[1] Tettenborn, Mark (August 2016), ‘Statistical Handbook 2015’, British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), London: Brewing Publications Limited, p. 29

[2] Office for National Statistics (May 2017), ‘Adult drinking habits in Great Britain: 2005 to 2016’   

[3] Daily Mail (October 2014), ‘The Gogglebox effect: Britons follow the example of tipsy TV couple by spurning the pub and drinking more at home’ <http://dailym.ai/1o70tQj>

[4] National Audit Office (NAO) (January 2012), ‘Renewed Alcohol Strategy: A Progress Report’, p. 4 <http://www.nao.org.uk/report/hm-revenue-and-customs-renewed-alcohol-strategy-a-progress-report/>

[5] World Health Organisation (WHO) (May 2014), ‘Global status report on alcohol and health 2014’, p. 5 <http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/global_alcohol_report/en/>

[6] WHO, ‘Global status report on alcohol and health 2014’, p. 246

[7] Robinson M (January 2015) ‘Regional alcohol consumption and alcohol-related mortality in Great Britain: novel insights using retail sales data’ BMC Public Health

[8] Office for National Statistics (ONS), ‘Chapter 2 – Drinking (General Lifestyle Survey Overview – a report on the 2011 General Lifestyle Survey)’ <http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/ghs/general-lifestyle-survey/2011/rpt-chapter-2.html>

[9] Public Health England (December 2016), ‘The Public Health Burden of Alcohol and the Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of Alcohol Control Policies: An evidence review’, pp.19–20