Researchers from the University of Sheffield have found that ‘pre-drinking’ is a common feature of nights out, and that events which take place exclusively at home – such as dinner parties – involved increased or “higher risk drinking”.

These findings imply that thanks to the availability of cheap alcohol in off-licences premises such as supermarkets, the concept of a heavy episodic pre-drinking routine is embedded among particular British drinking cultures.

The study, published online in the scientific journal Addiction and funded by Alcohol Research UK, looked at detailed drinking diaries completed by a representative sample of 90,000 adults as part of Kantar Worldpanel’s Alcovision study. In addition to recording how much they drank, participants detailed where and when they consumed alcohol, who was there and why they were drinking, over a seven-day period.

The researchers based at the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR) used the diaries to identify eight main types of drinking occasion.

The results showed that between 2009 and 2011, most drinking occasions in the UK involved drinking in the home, including:

  • Drinking at home alone (13.6% of occasions)
  • Light drinking at home with family (12.8%)
  • Light drinking at home with a partner (19.6%)
  • Heavy drinking at home with a partner (9.4%)

Consuming alcohol away from home was less common and included going out for a few drinks with friends (11.1% of occasions) and going out for a meal as a couple or with family (8.6%). The study also found that 10.4% of occasions involved groups of friends moving between home and pub drinking (mixed location heavy drinking) and consuming on average 14 units of alcohol – the equivalent of seven pints of beer or one and a half bottles of wine.

In comparison, almost half of get-togethers with friends or family which take place exclusively at home, such as dinner parties, house parties and watching sport, involved increased or higher risk drinking.

Dr John Holmes, a Senior Research Fellow in the University of Sheffield’s Alcohol Research Group, who led the study, said: “Far from the stereotypes of binge Britain or a nation of pub-drinkers, we find that British drinking culture mixes relaxed routine home drinking with elements of excess.

“Young people do binge drink on big nights out but we also see heavy drinking among middle-aged couples relaxing at home and among all ages at domestic get-togethers.”

The study defined low risk drinking as consuming less than six units for women or eight units for men during the occasion. Increasing risk drinking was defined as consuming 6–12 units (women) and 8–16 units (men) and high risk drinking involve drinking more than 12 units for women and more than 16 units for men. These thresholds are based on a commonly used definition of binge drinking which is 6 units for women and 8 units for men. A unit is approximately 8g or 10ml of pure alcohol. There are approximately two units in a pint of normal strength beer, one unit in a shot of spirits and two units in a 175ml glass of medium-strength wine.

Dr James Nicholls, Director of Research and Policy Development at Alcohol Research UK, said “The idea that there is a single British drinking culture is wrong. Drinking behaviours have changed enormously over time, and there are wide variations within society.

“Rather than assuming society is neatly divided between ‘binge’, ‘heavy’ or ‘moderate’ drinkers we should think about the occasions on which people drink more or less heavily – and the fact we may be moderate in some contexts, and less so in others. If we want to address problems associated with drinking, we need to recognise the diversity of how we drink and understand the crucial role that cultures and contexts play in that.”

Katherine Brown, Director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies said:

“Two thirds of all alcohol sold in the UK is bought from shops and supermarkets, which is a big change from the traditional British pub culture. The fact it is so much cheaper to drink at home is a huge driver for this shift, which is why tackling cheap supermarket drink would help pubs and also improve the nation’s health.

“The increased availability of cheap alcohol means frequent home drinking is more commonplace, including drinking at home before heading out to a pub or restaurant. This makes it very easy to exceed the low risk drinking guidelines recommended by our Chief Medical Officers, which raises risks of cancer, heart disease and liver cirrhosis. It’s important that consumers are aware of how many units are in their drinks and how alcohol may affect their health so they can make fully informed decisions about their drinking. Having clear labels on alcohol products with independent health information would be a sensible first step in supporting drinkers to make healthier choices, alongside mass media campaigns.”

The study is published as an open access paper in the scientific journal Addiction and is available in the accepted articles section of Addiction’s website.