Alcohol Concern Press Release

Drink surveys ‘grossly underestimate’ nation’s drinking by equivalent of 44 million bottles of wine per year

Drinkers in the UK consume the equivalent of a bottle of wine per week more than they admit, research released today shows.

Analysis from the Centre for Public Health, published by Alcohol Concern, shows that drink surveys used to measure the public’s alcohol consumption grossly underestimate how much people really drink. The difference between survey data and actual sales data reveals that 225 million litres of alcohol per year go unaccounted for. This is equivalent to 430 million units of alcohol per week, or 44 million bottles of wine.

Current high levels of alcohol consumption mean there would need to be a reduction of around 184 million litres of alcohol per year in sales (nearly a 1/3 of all current sales based on 2007/08 data) just for the average consumption of female and male drinkers to fall to 14 units and 21 units per week respectively, the report says.

Calculations of alcohol-related deaths and illnesses, messages about responsible drinking and analyses of the effectiveness of prevention methods all rely on survey data to give an accurate portrayal of the nation’s drinking habits. The report claims that current alcohol surveys are ill-equipped to accurately measure levels of consumption, meaning the future burden of alcohol harm on public services could be much greater than previously thought.

Professor Mark Bellis, Director of the Centre for Public Health and lead author of the work said:

“It is easy to see how so much alcohol can be consumed without actually registering in surveys.

“When asked to think about their drinking, people often ignore occasional heavier drinking sessions, holidays, weddings and other celebrations like Christmas parties. Even when people try to remember such occasions, generally the more they have drunk, the more they are likely to forget. As a result, the difference between what people say they drink and sales data on how much is actually bought for consumption is huge.

Elsewhere more sophisticated tools have been developed to better measure levels of consumption. As individuals and as a nation we urgently need to have more accurate measures of how much alcohol we consume and a better understanding of the harms caused by such consumption.”

Alcohol Concern Chief Executive Don Shenker said:

“If we underestimate our drinking levels, then we’re underestimating the amount of harm we can expect to happen to our families, communities and wider society – as well as how much further we need to go to curb our excessive consumption.

“Poor survey intelligence can result in misinformed policy. Any future government must get to grips with measuring the true scale and nature of this problem if it is to make a difference to reduce alcohol harms.”

Download the full report here. (pdf 668kb)