The amount of alcohol consumed in the UK is a common topic of debate among politicians, journalists, academics and the general public. Claims are often made about how much we drink, how we drink and how this compares to other countries, but what are the facts?

Historically alcohol has played a large part in British society, but trends over the last few years have prompted a discussion about whether we may have changed our relationship with alcohol. Articles in the 
GuardianTimes (£)Daily Mail and Financial Times(£) have all explored this phenomenon.

1. 7.7 litres of 100% alcohol drunk per capita in 2014
2. 9.4 litres of 100% alcohol drunk per adult (15+) in 2014

In the last 10 years alcohol consumption in the UK has experienced a period of sustained and significant decline. Since 2004 the amount of alcohol consumed per capita has declined 19%
[1]. After a period of elevated consumption in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the rate in 2013 has now returned to within the range seen between 1980 and 1995.


Source: BBPA/HMRC see Trends in Alcohol: A compilation of UK data

 

Historically alcohol consumption in the UK has gone through many fluctuations due to social, political and economic factors. It is often said that we currently drink twice as much as we did in the 1950s. This is true but simplifies the substantial variation in consumption across the 20th century. 

 Source: BBPA/HMRC see Trends in Alcohol: A compilation of UK data

As we can see above, the UK began the 20
th century consuming larger quantities of alcohol than we do today. The impact of world wars and the great depression probably played a substantial role in the large declines in consumption that occurred in 1916 and 1930. Consumption remained low after WWII before beginning to rise in the late 1950s and continuing to rise throughout the latter half of the 20th century before peaking in 2004. As this graph illustrates, the decline in consumption over the past decade represents the most significant and sustained decrease since the world wars.


So now that we know the facts for the UK, how do we compare to other countries in Europe? According to the latest data collected by the OECD, the UK ranks as the 16
th highest consumer among the 34 OECD countries behind many of our closest neighbours such as France, Germany, Ireland, Denmark and Spain[2].


Source: OECD Health at a Glance 2013, from Trends in Alcohol: A compilation of UK data
* Note that the OECD warns that due to the effect of cross-border trading, this may not accurately represent Luxembourg’s consumption rates.

 

While measures of total national consumption are important, they don’t capture the ways in which people choose to drink. To get an accurate picture of the role of alcohol in people’s lives it is important to understand the patterns of consumption. One important measure is ‘binge drinking’ which is defined as consuming more than twice the NHS daily guidelines on alcohol consumption. Between 2005 and 2013 the proportion of adults binge drinking weekly fell from a peak of nearly 20% down to 15%[3]

Importantly the groups that achieved the greatest reductions in binge drinking behaviour were men and women aged 16-24 with the proportion of those in this age group binge drinking falling by of 34% and 41% respectively[4]

Source: Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, ONS from Trends in Alcohol: A compilation of data from across the UK

So as a nation we’re consuming less alcohol than we were a decade ago, and when we are drinking, we’re less likely to be drinking to excess.

There are many possible explanations as to why this change has occurred; some have suggested that the effects of the recession may have made alcohol less affordable, but the fact that consumption began to decline during a period of increasing prosperity suggests that this cannot explain the whole phenomenon.

The most significant legislative change that has occurred over the last 15 years has been the introduction of the Licensing Act which came into force at the end of 2005. Currently there has been little research specifically addressing the effect of the licensing act on consumption
[5].

An alternative explanation might be that we, as a society, have changed our perspective on drinking and what is considered socially acceptable. It may be that a shift in social and cultural norms has meant that excessive drinking has become less acceptable and as a result people are consuming alcohol in more responsible ways.

We may never know definitively the reasons behind the changes in consumption but as a society it is important that we consider the facts and reflect on our relationship with alcohol to ensure that we enjoy it in moderation.



Robert Sherwin MEc

7 April 2015


 

[1] P. 6

[2] P. 7

[3] P. 8

[4] P. 9

[5] www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN05189.pdf