What does the ‘drinking culture’ in the UK look like compared to other countries?


UK drinking compared

Average consumption of alcohol (litres of pure alcohol per capita, age 15+) in the UK in 2010 was 10.3 litres – higher than the average in both Italy (6.1) and Spain (9.8) but lower than Ireland (11.9) and France (11.7).1 

Average per capita consumption in litres of pure alcohol (for 15+) was higher in the UK compared to the WHO European region average, for all years from 2003 – 2010.2

The health burden overall

In 2012, about 3.3 million deaths, or 5.9% of all global deaths, were attributable to alcohol consumption.3 Alcohol is now the third leading preventable cause of ill health in Europe, after smoking and hypertension, and is the leading preventable cause of morbidity and mortality in working age adults.4 

Deaths from cirrhosis of the liver, an important indicator of population levels of alcohol-related harm, increased in England and Wales by a factor of five between 1950 and 2002, in contrast to reductions in most other European countries.5

Changes in national drinking culture

The way people drink in different countries, and how much they drink, is changing over time. There is not a static 'national drinking culture' in contrast to how this is often being portrayed in popular media - with heavy drinking in Northern countries contrasted with moderate consumption in Southern Europe. In fact, not very long ago, it was exactly the other way round.

Since the 1970's changing alcohol consumption has led to a three- to fivefold in crease in liver deaths in the UK, and a three- to fivefold decrease in France and Italy.6 These changes in opposite directions challenge popular notions of static ‘drinking cultures’ including the idea that in Southern Europe there has always been a culture of harmless light drinking, integrated into everyday life. The radical positive change in Southern European drinking patterns has been explained as part of a wider societal transformation since the 1960s, with growing urbanisation and related changes in working conditions as well as increased health awareness in the population.7

In contrast, the change in the UK and other Northern European countries, moving from a lower base in the 1980s towards higher levels of drinking and alcohol-related harm is generally explained by increased availability and affordability of alcohol 8, 9, 10, combined with a culture of heavy, episodic drinking connected with weekends and celebrations, which are considered to have a particularly bad effect on health.11

Therefore, it is important to note that the effect of societal changes on alcohol consumption different between countries and there is no direct link between changes in living conditions and drinking. The process is indirect, mediated by each country’s historical and cultural background.12

Underage drinking

In a survey of children aged 11-15 in 39 countries, children aged 13 and 15 in England were more likely to have drunk alcohol weekly, compared to the average. England also has a higher than average proportion of 15 year olds who first got drunk aged 13 or younger – ranking within the top 10 countries in the survey for early initiation to drunkenness.13

A comparative survey14 involving 36 European countries suggests a relative youth drinking problem in the UK:

  • In the UK, more than half (55%) of 15-16 year olds said they have been drunk at least once (57% of girls and 53% of boys). Girls (51%) were more likely than boys (44%) to report being drunk at least once in the last year – this is also one of the highest ranked amongst countries in the survey after Denmark, Finland and Slovakia.
  • Teenage girls in the UK aged 15-16 were in the top 3 most likely to have been drunk in the last month – 29% of girls said this was the case, compared to 24% of boys. The average across countries in the study was 15% for girls and 18% of boys.

1. WHO (2014) Global Information System on Alcohol and Health (GISAH): Recorded alcohol per capita (15+ years) consumption in litres of pure alcohol, from 1990:2010. [Online] Available from [Accessed 19 November 2014]
2. WHO Global Health Observatory Data Repository: Recorded alcohol per capita consumption, from 1990, Data by country. Filtered for all years 2003-2010, Europe only. [Online] Available from [Accessed 20 November 2014].
3. WHO (2014) Global status report on alcohol and health 2014. [Online] Luxembourg: World Health Organization. Available from [Accessed 19 November 2014].
4.  Strang, J., Drummond, C., McNeill, A. et al (2014) Addictions, dependence and substance misuse In: Davies, S Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer 2013: Public Mental Health priorities: investing in the evidence. [Online] Available from  [Accessed 19 November 2014].
5.  ibid
6.  Jewell, J. and Sheron, N., 2010. Trends in European liver death rates: implications for alcohol policy. Clinical medicine, 10(3), pp.259-263.
7.  Allamani, A., Beccaria, F. & Voller, F. (2010) The puzzle of Italian drinking: Trends in alcohol consumption, harms and policy: Italy 1990–2010. Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 27: 465-478.
8.  Jackson, R., Johnson, M., Campbell, F. et al (2009) Interventions on control of alcohol price, promotion and availability for prevention of alcohol use disorders in adults and young people [Online] Available from [Accessed 14 January 2015].
9.  University of Stirling (2013) Health First: an evidence-based alcohol strategy for the UK. Stirling: University of Stirling. [Online] Available from [Accessed 14 January 2015].
10.  Poikolainen, K. (1980) Increase in alcohol-related hospitalizations in Finland 1969-1975. British Journal of Addiction 75(3): pp 281-291.
11.  Mladovsky, P., Allin, S., Masseria, C et al (2009) Health in the European Union: trends and analysis. Observatory Studies Series No. 19, United Kingdom: WHO on behalf of the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies [Online] Available from [Accessed 26 November 2014].
12.  Leifman, H. (2001). Trends in population drinking. T. Norström (red.). Alcohol in postwar Europe: consumption, drinking patterns, consequences and policy responses in, 15, 45-77.
13.  Currie, C., Zanotti, C., Morgan, A. et al (2012) Social determinants of health and well-being among young people. Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study: international report from the 2009/2010 survey [Online] Copenhagen: WHO Regional Office for Europe. Available from [Accessed 19 November 2014].
14.  Hibell, B., Guttormsson, U., Ahlström, S. et al (2012) The 2011 ESPAD Report: Substance use among students in 36 European countries. [Online] Available from [Accessed 19 November 2014].