Alcohol Consumption

Is alcohol consumption on the rise?

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Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash

Alcohol is, and always has been, the UK’s drug of choice, so much so that British tourists abroad have earned a reputation as “binge drinkers” and “lager louts”. Heavy drinking, particularly when in bursts rather than spread out, has been demonstrated to increase the risk of liver, heart and respiratory diseases, along with several forms of cancers and type 2 diabetes. Despite a steady decrease in most alcohol-related diseases in recent decades, current medical advice says that Britons are still drinking too much, and that we should all aim to drink less per week and never to excess. We asked our panel about how much, how often and why they drink, and we asked non-drinkers why they choose not to.

The latest NHS guidelines recommend consuming no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, which Drinkaware describes as being six pints of “average strength” (4%) beer or six 175ml glasses of “average strength” (13%) wine. Unfortunately, beer strength and wine glass sizes have been increasing over the years, so many consumers may be used to drinking pints of 6% craft beers, or 250ml glasses of 14% red wine, both of which would take only four drinks for you to reach the weekly 14 unit limit. This can make keeping track of your alcohol consumption very difficult for consumers.

For more information, see the Drinkaware website, where they have the full UK alcohol intake guidance, advice on how to cut down, and a free app to help you calculate and track your units.

AlcoholChange.org.uk highlights several negative effects of alcohol consumption in the UK:

  • Alcohol is a causal factor in more than 60 medical conditions.
  • Alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15-49 year-olds in the UK, and the fifth biggest risk factor across all ages.
  • In England, there are an estimated 586,780 dependent drinkers. Only 18% are receiving treatment.
  • In 2018/19 in England, 75,555 people were in treatment at specialist alcohol misuse services, a fall of 18% since 2013/14.
  • In 2015/16 in England, victims believed the offender(s) to be under the influence of alcohol in 39% of all violent incidents.
  • While the price of alcohol has increased by 31% over the last 10 years, it remains 64% more affordable than it was in 1987.
  • In 2016, 23% of 15-year-olds reported having been drunk in the last four weeks.

For more information, and many high-quality fact sheets on the subject, visit AlcoholChange.org.uk.

We conducted our own survey with findings from a cross-section of our exclusive panel of consumers, OpinionHive.

We asked our consumer panel about their drinking habits, how many times they visit the pub, what they drink if they are sober or teetotal, and which drink they favour on a night out. We also asked if people stick to the recommended consumer drinking guidelines, how often they drink, how much they drink and whether they are likely to increase or cut down drinking alcohol in 2020.

84% of our panel said that they drink alcohol. We asked the 16% of non-drinkers why they choose not to, and they told us that they don’t like the taste of alcohol (31%), don’t like feeling drunk (26%), have medical reasons to not drink (26%), find drinking too expensive (18%), don’t like the smell (15%), have dietary reasons to not drink (9%), and that drinking leaves them feeling too vulnerable (8%).

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Conversely, we asked the drinkers why they choose to drink alcohol and the answers were unsurprising but varied, such as enjoying the taste (68%), to celebrate something (56%), and to fit in (14%). Many of our panellists highlighted the positive mental effects of alcohol, saying that it helps them relax (52%), reduces stress (24%) and anxiety (13%), and boosts your confidence (12%).

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We asked about visiting the pub for a drink and how often those who did frequent their local boozer went there. Less than 2% went to the pub every day and only 3% went every week, underlining the fact that drinking outside of the home has fallen out of favour in recent years. 42% visit the pub at least once a month, 1 in 4 visit every few months only, and just 10% say they never go to the pub. Of those questioned, 28% had been to the pub in the past 7 days.

We asked why people were not visiting their local as much as in previous decades, and by far the biggest reason was that pubs are now thought too expensive (42%). 26% would prefer to drink while they eat in a restaurant, 22% prefer to drink at home with 16% saying there was better entertainment at home, 21% don’t have enough time, 17% simply don’t enjoy going to the pub, and 8% feel that sitting in a pub drinking is boring.

We asked our drinkers about their favourite tipples, and wine and spirits were neck and neck at 65%, followed by beer at 44%, lager and cider both at 40%, sparkling wines at 35%, and alcopops bringing up the rear at 11%.

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The plot shows consumer demographics for several different drinks with age increasing to the right – more young people drink alcopops than older. Colour represents gender, pink and blue for women and men.

We drink more wine as we get older with more women enjoying it than men, however beer and lager is far more popular with the boys. Sparkling wine on the other hand is a favourite among women of all ages. Cider seems to be growing in popularity as younger women are the most likely to drink it (66%), although older women are also the least likely to drink cider (13%).

We asked our panel to approximate how many units of alcohol they drink in a typical week. We provided the following guidance on what constitutes a unit: 218ml of standard 4.5% cider, 76ml of 13% wine, 25ml of standard 40% whiskey, 250ml of standard 4% beer or alcopop.

Of our alcohol drinking panel, 33% say that they consume 1-3 units a week, 16% consume 4-6 units, 9% 7-9 units a week, and 18% consume more than the Government recommended 14 units per week.

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The heaviest drinkers are men in their 50s and women in their 40s, with 34% and 13% respectively exceeding the weekly alcohol limit. Despite the “binge drinking” stereotype of young people, particularly students, men and women aged 18-29 are the least likely to exceed 14 units per week and drink the least alcohol on average.

We also found considerable variation around the UK, with 22% of Welsh drinkers exceeding 14 units a week, with an average of 7 units a week. By comparison, those in the East of England drink 5 units a week with only 11% having more than 14 units weekly.

But how aware are people of the NHS guidelines? When we asked our panel to tell us what the recommended maximum weekly intake is, only 18% said 14 units, but over half guessed lower.

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Is alcohol consumption on the rise?

We asked people if they felt that their alcohol intake had gone up or down in the past year, and over half say that it has stayed the same and a third feel they’ve cut down, with only 11% saying that they’re drinking more.

We asked how many drink-free days people have in a normal week and if people were drinking only once a week, more regularly or daily. 22% of people say they only drink one day per week, 18% twice a week, 10% have only 1 or 2 drink-free days, and 7% are drinking every day.

We asked if people felt pressurised to drink, and the majority of people said they did not, with 27% disagreeing and 55% strongly disagreeing with the statement. When asked if they feel that alcohol is inexpensive, 32% of people disagreed and 22% strongly disagreed.

Binge drinking seems to be something that Brits are sadly known for, but only 26% of our panel feel that it’s okay to binge drink occasionally. 33% of people questioned are worried about their health, and 74% feel that alcohol is a negative factor in one’s weight.

We asked our panel whether they have an overall positive, neutral or negative view on alcohol. 48% had no strong opinion, 19% feel negative about it, and 32% feel positive.

When we asked what words came to mind when thinking about how positive or negative they felt about alcohol, they said:

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Sobering up

We asked our panel whether they have tried alcohol-free beverages (low- to no-alcohol versions of traditionally alcoholic drinks), and how they compared to their alcoholic counterparts. 27% thought they were worse, 11% said a lot worse, but 21% felt that they tasted the same and 8% said they were better or a lot better.

Looking to the future, we asked if our drinkers will increase or decrease the amount of alcohol they consume. 70% feel that their drinking habits will stay exactly the same, 2% feel that they will drink more, and almost a quarter of people are aiming to drink less in 2020.

You can access other surveys and FREE fact sheets in our knowledge centre.

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