The epidemic of declining alcohol consumption

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Alcohol consumption, Alcoholic beverage

Talk of a binge-drinking 'epidemic' in UK is naive, suggests Phil Mellows
Talk of a binge-drinking 'epidemic' in UK is naive, suggests Phil Mellows
From the academic reports of august professional bodies to red-top splashes it’s become common to characterise Britain’s drink problem as an ‘epidemic’. It’s a very peculiar epidemic that afflicts fewer and fewer people year after year, but that seems to be the established pattern for drinking.

Confirming many other indicators, including the latest HMRC tax returns​, the Office for National Statistics General Lifestyle Survey 2010​ reveals steady and significant falls in UK alcohol consumption. The average number of units drunk in a week declined from 14.3 in 2005 to 11.5 in 2010. These are self-reported figures, of course, but the trend is undeniable – a 20% drop in consumption over five years.

And it’s being driven by young people. Among 16 to 24-year-olds weekly consumption has fallen by an astonishing 34%. (Heavy drinking is also down by a similar amount, although the numbers may be too small to be very accurate about it.)

Except you’re most likely to have seen this spun, with some nudging by the NHS, as a story about older people drinking more frequently than younger people, not a huge surprise since young folk tend to save it up for the weekend.

And it should be pointed out that consumption by the 45 to 64 age group is nevertheless down 18%. So it’s hard to argue that older people as a group are a problem, unless it’s because they’ve been neglected as a result of an over-emphasis on young binge-drinkers. And who’s fault’s that?

When it comes to frequency of drinking, it’s more interesting to note that 87% have at least three alcohol-free days a week. It will please the Commons Science and Technology Committee that its recommendation​ has had such a speedy result.

And there is confirmation that the decline in young people’s drinking is itself driven both by rising rates of abstention, with 19% of 16 to 24-year-olds (who should at least be experimenting) saying they never drink, and by less ‘binge-drinking’ with numbers who consumed more than eight units in their heaviest drinking day down 25%.

All this evidence, though, is unlikely to have an impact on the government’s imminent alcohol policy announcement. On the contrary, in the past week the prime minister, for one, has firmed up his position on minimum pricing which now seems likely to be included in the proposals.

If it is, it will be because it’s in the interests of short-term political expediency, of looking good. But as alcohol historian James Nicholls shrewdly points out​, the act of setting a minimum pricing could have a profound impact on the nature of the debate and on future policy.
So as well as having to contend with falling alcohol consumption, pubs, as much as supermarkets, will continue to be a target for rising concern about alcohol problems.

It’s unlikely in this atmosphere, for instance, that the government will heed the splendid call from academics to dissuade pre-loading by taking positive steps to entice people into pubs earlier in the evening.

I notice, by the way, that 43% of those arrested for drink-related disorder, selected for interview in this study, were unemployed. That’s a surprisingly high figure, and you might almost say that being out of work is as much a factor as drink in providing the conditions for troublesome behaviour in the late night economy.

Youth unemployment. Now that would be an epidemic.

Related topics: Legislation

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