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Socioeconomic groups' relationship with alcohol

Statistics on socioeconomic groups' relationship with alcohol suggest that although the proportion of people who drink regularly has fallen slightly in the last few years, those who drink heavily (above recommended guidelines) has risen, dramatically in the case of working people, who drink most frequently and to greater extent than those who are unemployed or economically inactive.

The figures also show that average alcohol consumption levels have remained steady among those who are employed. An individual is more likely to drink regularly and above recommended limits during the week if s/he is a high-income earning managerial/professional worker.

These statistics support media reports alluding to the idea of the middle-class professional who drinks with alarming regularity to levels of excess. As alcohol has become increasingly available and affordable over time, a larger proportion of the population has been able to drink relatively large quantities of alcohol consistently. For example, one feature titled 'Drink secrets of the middle-class', stated that career women working in a larger organisation or with higher managerial jobs were drinking twice the amount of women in manual jobs.[1] A study in the BioMed Central found that among middle class wine drinkers, there was also a common perception that health warnings could be ignored because “their own drinking was problem-free”, even if it regularly exceeded recommended guidelines.[2]

Excessive alcohol consumption can also be symptomatic of the problem of unhealthy lifestyle habits among high-income earners. This is reflected in data such as the recent Public Health Survey for Wales, which reported that adults in managerial and professional households reported healthier lifestyles in terms of smoking, obesity and fruit and vegetable consumption, but not for alcohol consumption or physical activity.[3] This is demonstrated in Figure 7 below.

Figure 7: Maximum daily consumption, by 2011 WIMD quintile, Wales

Source: ONS (2012), 'Welsh Health Survey 2011', p. 73

The positive correlation between socioeconomic status and alcohol consumption extends beyond the UK. Results from a comparative international study on alcohol consumption levels and social inequalities showed that for both genders and all countries higher individual socioeconomic status was positively associated with drinking status; in other words, the higher income earned by an individual, the more alcohol s/he consumed.[4]

But there is also evidence that hints at the negative effect that heavy alcohol consumption can have on the health outcomes of poorer households. For instance, a recent report into alcohol-related health inequalities in England and Wales was able to establish a clear association between alcohol-related mortality and socioeconomic deprivation, with progressively higher rates in more deprived areas, mainly among adults aged between 25 and 44 years.[5] This was supported by an ONS publication which found that men and women whose jobs are classified as “routine” were 3.5 and 5.7 times respectively more likely at risk of dying from an alcohol-related disease than those in higher managerial and professional jobs.[6]

Heavy alcohol consumption can also be symptomatic of alcohol dependency, which affects tens of thousands of benefits claimants on low incomes. The Department of Work and Pensions found that as of November 2012, there were 17,980 recipients of Incapacity Benefit/Severe Disablement Allowance (IB/SDA) and 36,500 recipients of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) had alcoholism listed as their main disabling condition.[7]

Furthermore, Scottish trend data highlight increasing inequalities between households over the negative health impacts of excessive alcohol consumption, based on the area in which people live.[8] In 2006/07, the rate of alcohol-related discharges from general acute hospitals was 7 times higher for patients living in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived areas. By 2010/11 the difference had increased, with the rate of alcohol- related discharges from general acute hospitals being 7.6 times greater for patients living in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived areas.

Figure 8: General acute inpatient discharges with an alcohol-related diagnosis by deprivation; 2006/07–2010/11**


Source: Information Services Division (ISD) Scotland (May 2012), 'Alcohol-related Hospital Statistics Scotland 2012', ONS, p. 7

Overall, the relationship between socioeconomic groups and alcohol consumption is complex. For instance, evidence on purchasing behaviour presented to the Scottish Parliament Health and Sport Committee stated that 'harmful drinkers in the highest income quintile are predicted to be buying 80 units a week of cheap alcohol'.[9] Yet, official data also shows that the negative health outcomes of alcohol consumption fall disproportionately on the unemployed, manual workers, and those on poorer incomes.

In a newspaper article on UK drinking habits, CEO of 2020health Julie Manning commented: “What’s worrying... is the way in which we overlook the habits of the silent majority who are slowly drinking themselves to death.”[10] Health professionals have emphasised the importance of looking at measures to combat the rising threat of negative alcohol-related health outcomes of people from all socioeconomic backgrounds.


**   Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD)


[1]   Yorkshire Post (January 2013), 'Drink secrets of the middle-class'

[3]   ONS (2012), 'Welsh Health Survey 2011', p. 62

[4]   Grittner, Ulrike, Kuntsche, Sandra, Gmel, Gerhard, Bloomfield, Kim (April 2013), 'Alcohol consumption and social inequality at the individual and country levels — results from an international study', European Journal of Public Health, 23: 2, pp. 332–339, Abstract

[5]   Erskine, Sally, et al (February 2010)., 'Socioeconomic deprivation, urban-rural location and alcohol-related mortality in England and Wales', BioMed Central Public Health, 10: 99, Abstract

[6]   ONS (May 2011) 'Alcohol death rate greater for women and men in routine jobs', Health Statistics Quarterly 50, p. 1

[7]   House of Commons Debates (June 2013), ‘Social Security Benefits: Alcoholic Drinks and Drugs’, c248W

[8]   Information Services Division (ISD) Scotland (May 2012), 'Alcohol-related Hospital Statistics Scotland 2012', Office for National Statistics, p. 6

[9]   Scottish Parliament Health and Sport Committee (January 2012), 'Official Report, Session 4', pp. 733–772, 738