Consumption: Adult drinking in the UK

Here you’ll find data on drinking in the UK including who drinks, what they drink, how often and what is the cost?

Although some people talk about ‘a British drinking culture’ the reality is of course that people in the UK drink in different ways. Below is an overview of some of the key stats that describe the variation in people’s drinking pattern.

This is segmented by UK adult population below, with UK underage drinking found separately. 

Drinking in the UK

Breakdown of alcohol risk levels in adults

Drinking habits of those who drank in the last week 

 

Drinking in the UK

Although some people talk about ‘a British drinking culture’ the reality is of course that people in the UK drink in different ways. Below is an overview of some of the key stats that describe the variation in people’s drinking patterns.

How many people don’t drink alcohol?

In 2015, 17% of adults aged 16 and over in England said that they had not consumed alcohol in the last year or said that they are a non-drinker.1

Breakdown of alcohol risk levels in adults

How many people abstain from alcohol?

In England in 2015, 14% of men and 21% of women said that they had not drunk any alcohol in the last year.2

How much do people drink?

In 2015 in England, 55% of men said that they had drunk in the last year and that their average weekly alcohol consumption was no more than 14 units.3

64% of women in England said that they had drunk in the last year and that their average weekly intake was no more than 14 units.4

In 2015, 11% of men and 7% of women in England said that their average weekly alcohol consumption was more than 14 units but no more than 21 units.5

In 2015 in England, 12% of men and 6% of women said that their average weekly alcohol consumption was more than 21 units but no more than 35 units.6

In 2015, 4% of men and 2% of women in England said that their average weekly alcohol consumption was more than 35 units but no more than 50 units.7

In 2015 in England, 4% of men and 1% of women said that their average weekly alcohol consumption was more than 50 units.8

*According to the Health Survey for England 2014 report, average weekly consumption was calculated using "the frequency of drinking different types of drink and the amounts of each drunk on a typical day”.9 There were no major changes over the comparable four years that alcohol risk levels were measured (2011-2015).

 

Drinking habits of those who drank in the last week

People who drank in the last week

In 2014, 58% of adults (people aged 16 and over) in Great Britain said they drank alcohol at least once in the week before being interviewed.10 Between 2005 and 2014 the proportion of men who drank alcohol in the week before being interviewed fell from 72% to 64%, and the proportion of women fell from 57% to 53%.11

In 2015, among men in England who had drunk alcohol in the last week, 24% had consumed between 4-8 units on their heaviest drinking day and further 28% drank more than 8 units on at least one day in the last week.12

Of women in England who consumed alcohol in last week in 2015, 27% consumed between 4 – 6 units on their heaviest drinking day and 23% drank more than 6 units on their heaviest drinking day.13

Frequent drinkers

Between 2005 and 2014 in Great Britain, there was a fall in the proportion of men who were frequent drinkers (those who drank alcohol on at least five days in the week before being interviewed) from 22% to 14%, and in the proportion of women who did so from 13% to 8%.14

Binge Drinking

In 2013, among all adults aged 16 or over in Great Britain, 15% were classed as binge drinkers.  For men this was defined as more than eight units on the heaviest drinking day and more than six units for women.15

Older vs. younger drinkers – frequent vs heavy

Drinkers aged 65+ years drink more frequently than any other group but young people drink more units on a single occasion.16

In 2014, 48% of people aged 16-24 had consumed alcohol in the past week compared with 57% of those aged 65 and over.17

In 2014, people aged 65 and over in Great Britain were more likely than any other age group to have drunk alcohol on 5 or more days in the previous week (25% of men and 15% of women) compared to 4% of men and 1% women aged 16 to 24.18

In 2014, of those young people aged 16 to 24 in Great Britain who drank in the last week, 17% drank more than 14 units on their heaviest drinking day – meaning that 7% of everyone in that age group drank at this level. Of those aged 65 and over who drank in the last week, 2% drank more than 14 units on their heaviest drinking day – meaning that less than 1% of all people in this age group drank at the level.19

How many people are drinking to harmful levels?

Hazardous drinking is defined by the AUDIT alcohol use assessment tool as a drinking pattern that will likely bring the person to some harm because of alcohol – whether physical, mental, or social. Harmful drinking denotes the most dangerous use of alcohol, at which damage to health is likely.

The prevalence of hazardous drinking in England in 2007 was 24.2% (33.2% of men, 15.7% of women). This included 3.8% of adults (5.8% of men, 1.9% of women) whose drinking could be categorised as harmful. In men, the highest prevalence of both hazardous and harmful drinking was in 25 to 34 year olds, in women in 16 to 24 year olds.20

How much do people spend on alcohol in the UK?

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Family Food 2014 report examines how much households spend on food and drink for the household (household spending) and that consumed outside the home. In real terms, between 2011 and 2014, household spending on alcoholic drinks fell by 1.6%. Spending on alcohol bought for consumption outside of the home fell by 13%.21  

In 2015, alcohol was nearly 60% more affordable in the UK than it was in 1980, highlighting the overall trend of increasing affordability over the period. ‘Affordability’ is the price of alcohol relative to adults’ disposable income (base year 1980).22

It is estimated that in the UK in 2014, the average weekly household spend on alcohol consumed in the home was £7.90, while £7.20 was spent on alcohol consumed outside the home.23

Where do people drink?

In 2012, 34% of all alcohol (by volume of pure alcohol) was sold in the ‘on-trade’; that is licensed premises like pubs, bars and restaurants. This has decreased from nearly half (47%) of alcohol sold in the on-trade in 2000. People in the UK have shown a shifting preference to purchasing alcohol in the off-trade (for example from supermarkets and shops) to consume at home.24

Despite this, the number of licensed premises (including off-licenses, pubs, bars, clubs, hotels, restaurants) in the UK has increased by 3% since 2000.25

What do people like to drink?

Since 1990, consumers in the UK have shown a shifting preference from beer to wine, though consumption of beer still makes up the biggest percentage share between types of drinks based on pure alcohol content; beer (35.6%), wine (32.9%), spirits (21.6%), cider (8.5%) and ‘ready-to-drink’ beverages such as ‘alcopops’ (1.4%).26

The majority of men (16+ in England) who had drunk alcohol in the last week had drunk normal strength beer, cider or shandy (62%); a third had drunk wine (33%), and just over a fifth had drunk spirits (22%). In contrast, the majority of women had drunk wine (64%); a quarter had drunk spirits (26%), and a fifth had drunk normal strength beer, cider or shandy (19%).27

Alcohol and calories

For adults aged 19 to 64 in the UK (who drank in the 4-day diary period), alcohol provided on average 8.4% of their energy intake.28

Alcohol harm paradox: Is alcohol harm linked to income?

The so-called ‘alcohol paradox’ describes the finding that people in the most socioeconomically deprived neighbourhoods of the UK, despite not reporting to be drinking more, are two to three times as likely to die from an alcohol-related condition than their counterparts living in the least deprived neighbourhoods.29

Data from 2012 shows that the prevalence and frequency of drinking alcohol is highest for those in least deprived areas and those in the highest income quintiles for both men and women in England. However binge drinking rates were found to be similar in all income quintiles and were not related to deprivation level once age was taken into account. Increasing risk drinking was more prevalent in the least deprived areas and the highest income quintile. However high risk drinking patterns did not differ significantly between high and low deprivation areas, or high and low income groups.30

A recent study exploring the ‘alcohol harm paradox’ looked at why alcohol harms are more heavily concentrated among deprived communities, despite levels of consumption being similar across all social groups. Its findings differ from those reported by the Health Survey for England 2012 as they report that although overall consumption levels are similar there are differences in terms of higher levels of ‘binge drinking’ among lower socioeconomic groups. The discrepancy in findings between this report and the Health Survey for England can be explained by the different data collection methods which the two reports used. The report on the ‘alcohol harm paradox’ also identified important differences in beverage choice with individual socioeconomic status. Importantly, the finding of higher harm from alcohol in lower socioeconomic groups is likely to be the result of complex factors from alcohol’s interaction with other health behaviours such as diet, exercise and smoking.31

For more on the findings see: http://alcoholresearchuk.org/alcohol-insights/understanding-the-alcohol-harm-paradox-2/

Regional variances

Among men in England who had drunk in the last week, those in the South East consumed the lowest mean number of units on their heaviest drinking day (3.8 units). This is compared to men in the North East where the mean number of units on their heaviest drinking day was 4.6 units.32

Similarly, women in the North East of England have the highest mean number of units on their heaviest drinking day (3.9 units) compared with 2.9 units for women in the South East and East Midlands.33

In 2014, the proportion of those who drank in the last week in Britain who consumed more than 14 units on their heaviest drinking was highest in Wales (14%) and Scotland (13%) and lowest in the West Midlands (6%) and the East of England (6%).34

Under-reporting

Reported alcohol consumption based on surveys that ask people how much and how often they drink typically amounts to 40%-60% of total alcohol sales in studies conducted internationally. This was roughly confirmed for consumption in England in a 2012 study by University College London and Health Survey for England.35

But asking about ‘the typical drinking’ risks missing the drinking that takes place on special occasions. In a recent study researchers asked people about special drinking periods (e.g. holidays) and events (e.g. weddings). They found that accounting for atypical or special occasion drinking added over 120 million units of alcohol per week to population consumption.36

References

1 NHS Digitial (2016) Health Survey for England – 2014 Trend tables, Table 10. [Online] Available from http://www.content.digital.nhs.uk/catalogue/PUB22616/HSE2015-Adult-trend-tbls.xlsx [Accessed 14 December 2016]. 

2 ibid.

3 ibid.

4 ibid.

5 ibid.

6 ibid.

7 ibid.

8 ibid.

The Health and Social Care Information Centre (2015) Health Survey for England, 2014. [Online]. Available here: http://content.digital.nhs.uk/catalogue/PUB19295/HSE2014-ch8-adult-alc-con.pdf. [Accessed 20 December 2016]. 

10 Office of National Statistics (2016) Opinions and Lifestyles Survey: adult drinking habits in Great Britain, 2014. [Online] Available from: http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/drugusealcoholandsmoking/datasets/adultdrinkinghabits [Accessed 8 March 2016]

11 ibid.

12 NHS Digital (2016) Health Survey for England, 2015: Adult alcohol consumption – tables, Table 8. [Online] Available from http://www.content.digital.nhs.uk/catalogue/PUB22610/HSE2015-Adult-alc-tab.xlsx [Accessed 14 December 2016 2016].

13 ibid.

14 ONS (2016) Opinions and Lifestyles Survey: adult drinking habits in Great Britain, 2014, Table 1. [Online] Available from: http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/drugusealcoholandsmoking/datasets/adultdrinkinghabits [Accessed 8 March 2016]

15 Health and Social Care Information Centre (2015) Statistics on Alcohol: England, 2015. [Online] Available from http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB17712/alc-eng-2015-tables.xlsx

16 ONS (2016) Opinions and Lifestyles Survey: adult drinking habits in Great Britain, 2014. [Online] Available from: http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/drugusealcoholandsmoking/datasets/adultdrinkinghabits [Accessed 8 March 2016]

17 ibid.

18 ibid.

19 ONS (2016) Opinions and Lifestyles Survey: Adult Drinking Habits in Great Britain, 2014. [Online]. Available from: http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/drugusealcoholandsmoking/datasets/analysisbasedonnewalcoholconsumptionguidelines

20 Health and Social Care Information Centre (2009) Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England – 2007, Results of a household survey. [Online] Available from: http://www.hscic.gov.uk/pubs/psychiatricmorbidity07 [Accessed 30 October 2014]

21 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2015). Family Food 2014. [Online] Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/485982/familyfood-2014report-17dec15.pdf. [Accessed 13 September 2016]

22 Health and Social Care Information Centre (2016) Statistics on Alcohol: England, 2016. [Online] Available from: http://content.digital.nhs.uk/catalogue/PUB20999/alc-eng-2016-rep.pdf [Accessed 13 September 2016].

23 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2015). Family Food 2014, Table A11. [Online] Available from http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/personalandhouseholdfinances/incomeandwealth/compendium/familyspending/2015/familyspending2015referencetables [Accessed 15  September  2014].

24 Sheen, D. (ed.) (2013) Statistical Handbook: a compilation of drinks industry statistics. London: Brewing Publications Limited, p 32.

25 Sheen, D. (ed.) (2013) Statistical Handbook: a compilation of drinks industry statistics. London: Brewing Publications Limited, p 67.

26 ibid.

27 Fuller, E. (2013) Alcohol consumption. In: Health and Social Care Information Centre Health Survey for England – 2012. [Online] Available from http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB13218 [Accessed 19 November 2014].

28 Public Health England and Food Standards Agency (2014) National Diet and Nutrition Survey: combined results from Years 1 to 4 of the rolling programme (2008/9-2011/12) [Online] Available from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/310995/NDNS_Y1_to_4_UK_report.pdf [Accessed 19 November 2014].

29 Deacon L, Morleo M, Hannon KL, Cook PA, Tocque K, Perkins C, et al. Alcohol consumption: segmentation series report 2. Liverpool: North West Public Health Observatory, Liverpool John Moores University, 2011

30 Alcohol consumption. In Health and Social Care Information Centre Health Survey for England – 2012. [Online] Available at:http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB13218 

31 Bellis, Mark A., et al. "The alcohol harm paradox: using a national survey to explore how alcohol may disproportionately impact health in deprived individuals." BMC public health 16.1 (2016): 1.

32 Health and Social Care Information Centre (2015) Health Survey for England – 2014 Trend tables. [Online] Available from http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB19295/HSE2014-ch8-adult-alc-con-tab.xlsx [Accessed 11 February 2016].  

33 ibid.

34 Office of National Statistics (2016) Opinions and Lifestyles Survey: adult drinking habits in Great Britain, 2014. [Online]. Available from: http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/drugusealcoholandsmoking/datasets/analysisbasedonnewalcoholconsumptionguidelines [Accessed 8 March 2016].

35 Boniface, S. and Fuller, E. (2012) Drinking diary. In Health and Social Care Information Centre Health Survey for England – 2012. [Online] Available from http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB09300 [Accessed 19 November 2014].

36 Bellis M A, Hughes K, Jones L, et al (2015) Holidays, celebrations and commiserations: measuring drinking during feasting and fasting to improve national and individual estimates of alcohol consumption. BMC Medicine. 13:113.