Alcohol Consumption: UK

Promoting responsible drinking, and reducing the harms related to alcohol misuse, requires a comprehensive understanding of how we drink in the UK. Today, about 40 million adults in the UK choose to drink, while around 10 million are teetotal.

 That being said, since the recent peak in 2004 alcohol consumption per capita has consistently and significantly declined although remains higher than historic levels. HMRC data from 2016, shows that consumption has now declined by 17% since a peak in 2004.


Alcohol consumption per adult (15+) – United Kingdom

Source: BBPA – Analysis of HMRC customs clearance
Note: 15+ used as consistent with WHO and other international consumption measures


National estimates of alcohol consumption come from two sources; HMRC clearance data gives an accurate measure of the alcohol released onto the market, and the Opinions and Lifestyles Survey, which surveys people’s views about their patterns and styles of consumption.


It has been suggested that the falling rate of alcohol consumed per capita has been driven by increasing numbers of people choosing to avoid alcohol altogether. However, although the numbers of non-drinkers has increased slightly from 2005-2016 (from 19% to 21%), those that do drink are drinking less and less often.

Alcohol consumption: International Comparison


European alcohol consumption is generally higher than the rest of the world with countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia all showing lower levels of consumption in the OECD.

Within Europe the UK’s per capita consumption levels rank 16th, lower than some of our closest neighbours including France, Germany and Portugal.


Alcohol consumption among adults 2016 (litres of pure alcohol per 15+)

Source: OECD

While population level data is important for the context, it cannot give us a picture of patterns in alcohol consumption. To address this gap the Office of National Statistics conducts large surveys of the population that ask questions related to alcohol consumption by various age, gender, regional and socio-economic groups.


In the UK ‘binge drinking’ is defined by the NHS as consuming double the daily guidelines in one day/session. For men this would be equivalent to 8 units of alcohol, and 6 units for women.

Unfortunately the concept of ‘binge drinking’ lacks a standard definition and varies from country to country[1]. For this reason robust international comparisons of binge drinking are not routinely published.


ONS data shows that the number of people defined as ‘binge drinking’ weekly has declined from 18% to 15% in the last decade with a peak of 20% in 2007.

Percentage of people 'binge drinking weekly' - Great Britain


Source: ONS: Adult drinking habits in Great Britain: 2005 to 2016.(xls)


Fiona Morgan

22 September 2016