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
- People who drank in the last week
- Binge drinking
- Frequent drinkers
- Older vs. younger drinkers – frequent vs heavy
- How many people are drinking to harmful levels?
- How much do people spend on alcohol in the UK?
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.
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
In England in 2015, 14% of men and 21% of women said that they had not drunk any alcohol in the last year.2
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
In 2016, 57% 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 2016 the proportion of men who drank alcohol in the week before being interviewed fell from 72% to 63%, and the proportion of women fell from 57% to 51%.11
In 2016, among men in Great Britain who had drunk alcohol in the last week, 25% had consumed between 4-8 units on their heaviest drinking day and further 28% drank more than 8 units on their heaviest drinking day in the last week.12
Of women in Great Britain who consumed alcohol in last week in 2016, 28% consumed between 3 – 6 units on their heaviest drinking day and 25% drank more than 6 units on their heaviest drinking day.13
In 2016, among those who had drink alcohol 27% were classed as binge drinkers in the week before being interviewed. That is 15% of all adults aged 16 or over in Great Britain. For men this was defined as more than 8 units or more on the heaviest drinking day and 6 units or more for women.14
Between 2005 and 2016 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 12%, and in the proportion of women who did so from 13% to 7%.15
Drinkers aged 65+ years drink more frequently than any other group but young people drink more units on a single occasion.16 In 2016, 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 (24% of men and 12% of women) compared to 3% of men and 1% women aged 16 to 24.17
In 2016, 46% of people aged 16-24 had consumed alcohol in the past week compared with 55% of those aged 65 and over.18 In 2016, of those young people aged 16 to 24 in Great Britain who drank in the last week, 24% of men and 29% of women drank more than 12 and 9 units respectively on their heaviest drinking day - meaning that 26% of all drinkers in that age group drank at this level. Of those aged 65 and over who drank in the last week, 3% of men and 2% of women drank more that 12 and 9 units respectively on their heaviest drinking day – meaning that 3% of all drinkers in this age group drank at the level.19
There are two ways to measure harmful levels of drinking: the total amount of alcohol consumed as measured in alcohol units (indicating the risk of alcohol-related health harm) and a wider assessment of the extent to which drinking is causing problems (based on the AUDIT assessment tool).
In terms of the unit amount, the UK Chief Medical Officer recommends that men and women should not regularly (defined as most weeks) drink more than 14 units a week. Drinking at this level is considered to be 'low risk', and adults who regularly drink up to this amount are advised to spread their drinking over three or more days. Above this level is considered to be 'increased risk'. The more you drink above this level, the higher the risk. Whilst the low risk guidelines are the same for men and women, it is important to be aware that drinking at a higher level (beyond the low risk guidelines) more quickly causes severe health problem to women. See alcohol and gender.
The prevalence of increased risk drinking in England in 2015 was 31% of men and 16% of women. This included 4% of men and 3% of women whose drinking could be categorised as 'higher risk' (defined as over 35 units for women and over 50 units for men). For men and women, the highest prevalence of people drinking above the low risk guidance was in 55 to 64 year olds.20
In terms of the full AUDIT measurement, 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 2014 was 16.6%. This included 1.9% of adults whose drinking could be categorised as harmful or mildly dependent, and 1.2% of adults who were probably dependent drinkers. In men, the highest prevalence of harmful, mildly dependent and probably dependent drinking was in 25 to 34 year olds, and for women drinking at this level, it was in 16 to 24 year olds.21
The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Family Food 2015 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 2012 and 2015, household spending on alcoholic drinks increased by 0.3%. Spending on alcohol bought for consumption outside of the home inreased by 1.5%.22
In 2015, alcohol was nearly 60% more affordable in the UK than it was in 1980 and 2% more affordable since 2005, highlighting the overall trend of increasing affordability over the period. ‘Affordability’ is the price of alcohol relative to adults’ disposable income (base year 1980).23
It is estimated that in the UK in 2016, the average weekly household spend on alcohol consumed in the home was £7.80, while £7.50 was spent on alcohol consumed outside the home.24
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.25
Despite this, and the significant decline in the number of pubs in the UK (down from 60,1000 in 2002 to 50,800 in 2015), the total number of licensed premises (including off-licenses, pubs, bars, clubs, hotels, restaurants) in the UK has increased by 3% since 2000.26
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%).27
In 2016, the majority of men who binged on their heaviest drinking day in the last week had drunk normal strength beer/ cider/ stout/ cider (67%); almost a third had drunk wine/ champagne (31%), and just over a quarter had drunk spirits (29%). In contrast, the majority of women had drunk wine (70%); 2 in 5 had drunk spirits (39%), and almost a quarter had drunk normal strength beer, stout, lager or cider (23%).
In 2016, the majority of men who did not binge on their heaviest drinking day in the last week still had drunk normal strength beer/cider/stout/cider (53%); a third had drunk wine/champagne (33%), and just under a fifth had drunk spirits (18%). In contrast, the majority of women had drunk wine (60%); a fifth had drunk spirits (21%) and only 17% had drunk normal strength beer/stout/lager/cider.28
For adults aged 19 to 64 in the UK (who completed a diary of drink and food consumption over four consecutive days), alcohol provided on average 8.4% of their energy intake.29
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.30
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.31
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.32
For more on the findings see: http://alcoholresearchuk.org/alcohol-insights/understanding-the-alcohol-harm-paradox-2/
Of the constituent countries, in 2016 England had the highest proportion of people who said they drank alcohol in the previous week (57.4%); this was followed by Wales (54.7%) and then Scotland (53%). These proportions were not found to be statistically different from each other.
Of the English regions, 7 in 10 people (70.1%) in the South West drank in the previous week, the highest proportion among all English regions. Fewer than half of people in London said they drank in the previous week (47%), the lowest of all the regions.33
When looking at drinkers who "binged" on their heaviest drinking day in the last week, of the constituent countries of Great Britain excessive drinking was more common in Scotland (32.2%), followed by Wales (29.7%) and then England (26.2%). These differences were not found to be significant.
Of the English regions, 40.4% of drinkers in the North East "binged" on their heaviest drinking day; with the exception of the North West this proportion is statistically significantly higher than all other regions on England.34
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 2013 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