Drinking in the UK
Although some people talk about ‘a British drinking culture’ the reality is 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 Great Britain in 2017, one-fifth (20%) of adults aged 16 and over said that they do not drink alcohol.1
In England in 2017, 18% of adults aged 16 and over said that they had not consumed alcohol in the last year or said that they are a non-drinker.2 The proportions of non-drinkers were highest in the youngest (16-24) and oldest (75+) age groups.
Breakdown of alcohol risk levels in adults
How many people abstain from alcohol?
In England in 2017, 16% of men and 21% of women said that they had not drunk any alcohol in the last year.3
How much do people drink?
In 2017 in England, 56% of men and 64% of women said that they had drunk in the last year and that their average weekly alcohol consumption was no more than 14 units.4 (Figure 1)
In 2017 in England, 24% of men said that their average weekly alcohol consumption was more than 14 units but no more than 50 units.5 11% of women said that their average weekly alcohol consumption was more than 14 units but no more than 35 units.6
In 2017 in England, 4% of men said that their average weekly alcohol consumption was more than 50 units and 3% of women said that their average weekly alcohol consumption was more than 35 units.7
Drinking habits of those who drank in the last week
People who drank in the last week
In 2017, 57% of adults (people aged 16 and over) in Great Britain said they drank alcohol at least once in the week before being interviewed.8 Between 2005 and 2017 the proportion of men who drank alcohol in the week before being interviewed fell from 72% to 62%, and the proportion of women fell from 57% to 52%.9
In 2017, among those in Great Britain who had drunk alcohol, 27% were classed as binge drinkers based on their heaviest drinking day in the week before being interviewed (28.7% of men and 25.6% of women). For men this was defined as eight units or more on their heaviest drinking day and six units or more for women.10
In 2017, among men in Great Britain who had drunk alcohol in the last week, 51% had consumed between 4-8 units on their heaviest drinking day and further 29% drank more than eight units on their heaviest drinking day in the last week.11
Of women in Great Britain who consumed alcohol in last week in 2017, 52% consumed between 3–6 units on their heaviest drinking day and 26% drank more than six units on their heaviest drinking day.12
Between 2005 and 2017 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 8%.13
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.14 In 2017, 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 (21% of men and 13% of women) compared to 1% of men and 2% women aged 16 to 24.15
In 2017, 48% of people aged 16-24 had consumed alcohol in the past week compared with 55% of those aged 65 and over.16 Of those young people aged 16 to 24 in Great Britain who drank in the last week, 33% of men and 27% of women drank more than 12 and 9 units respectively on their heaviest drinking day – meaning that, in that age group, 30% of all drinkers drank at this level—14% when non-drinkers are included. Of those aged 65 and over who drank in the last week, 6% of men and 3% of women drank more than 12 and 9 units respectively on their heaviest drinking day – meaning that, in this age group, 2% of everyone and 4% of all drinkers drank at the level.17
How many people are drinking to harmful levels?
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 the drinking is causing problems (based on the AUDIT assessment tool).
In terms of the unit amount, the UK Chief Medical Officers recommend 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.18 Above this level is considered to be ‘increased risk’. The more you drink above this level, the higher the risk. While 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 problems to women. See alcohol and gender.
The prevalence of ‘increased risk’ drinking in England in 2017 was 28% of men and 14% of women. This included 4% of men and 3% of women whose drinking could be categorised as ‘higher risk’ (defined as 35 units and over for women and 50 units and over for men).19 For men and women, the age group with the highest prevalence of drinkers above the low risk drinking guidance was 55 to 64 year olds; 28% of this age group drink more than 14 units a week.20
In terms of the full Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) measurement, hazardous drinking is defined as a drinking pattern that increases the risk of harmful consequences for the person or others. Harmful drinking and possibly dependent refer to a use of alcohol where damage to health is likely–whether physical, mental, or social.21
In 2016, the prevalence of hazardous drinking (defined as an AUDIT score between eight and 15) among men in England was 24%, with 3% categorised as harmful or mildly dependent (a score of 16-19), and 2% who were possibly dependent drinkers (a score of 20+). Among women, the prevalence of hazardous drinking was 13%, with 1% categorised as harmful and 1% as possibly dependent.22
How much do people spend on alcohol in the UK?
It is estimated that in the UK in 2018, the average weekly household spend on alcohol consumed in the home was £8.70, while £8.00 was spent on alcohol consumed outside the home.23
Between 2013 and 2016/17, there was a 2.8% increase in spending per person per week on alcoholic drinks from £6.26 to £6.44.24 Of this, spending on alcohol bought for consumption outside of the home increased by 1.7%, from £3.02 per person per week to £3.07, while spending on alcohol for consumption inside the home increased 4% from £3.24 to £3.36.25 However, none of these increases were statistically significant.
In 2017, alcohol was nearly 64% more affordable in the UK than it was in 1987 and 3.2% more affordable since 2008, highlighting the overall trend of increasing affordability over the period.26 ‘Affordability’ is the price of alcohol relative to adults’ disposable income (base year 1987).27
Where do people drink?
In 2017, 31% 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 almost half (47%) of alcohol sold in the on-trade in 2000.28
There has been also been a 20% decline in the number of pubs in the UK since 2000 (down from 60,800 in 2000 to 48,350 in 2017),29 yet the total number of licensed premises (including off-licenses, pubs, bars, clubs, hotels, restaurants) has increased 5.1% since 2000 to 208,928 in 2016.30 The majority of this increase has been in off-licences, reflecting the shifting preference of people in the UK purchasing alcohol in the off-trade (for example from supermarkets and shops) to consume at home.
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 largest percentage share between types of drinks based on pure alcohol content; beer (35.3%), wine (32.3%), spirits (23.1%), cider (7.0%) and ‘ready-to-drink’ beverages such as ‘alcopops’ (2.4%). The market share of ‘ready-to-drink’ beverages has doubled since 2009.31
In 2017, the majority of men (aged 16 years and over in Great Britain) who had drunk alcohol in the last week, but had not binged, had drunk normal strength beer, stout, lager or cider (56%); almost a third had drunk wine or champagne (31%), and just under a sixth had drunk spirits (16%). In contrast, the majority of women who had drunk alcohol in the last week, but had not binged, had drunk wine or champagne (60%); almost a quarter had drunk spirits (23%), and just under a sixth had drunk normal strength beer, stout, lager or cider (16%).32
For those that had binged (exceeded eight units for men, or six units for women) on alcohol in the last week, 47% had drunk wine or champagne (31% men, 68% women), 45% had drunk normal strength beer, stout, lager or cider (60% men, 25% women), and 35% had drunk spirits (31% men, 40% women).33
Alcohol and calories
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.34
A survey by the Royal Society for Public Health in 2014 found that of 2,217 UK adults, over 80% did not know or underestimated the number of calories in a large glass of wine; and over 60% of respondents either did not know or underestimated the number of calories in a pint of lager.35
Of the constituent countries, in 2017 England had the highest proportion of people who said they drank alcohol in the previous week (58%); this was followed by Scotland (54%) and then Wales (50%).36
Of the English regions, 6 in 10 people (61%) in the South West and South East drank in the previous week, the highest proportion among all English regions. Just over half of people in London and the North East said they drank in the previous week (55%), the lowest of all the regions.37
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 (37%), followed by Wales (30%) and then England (26%).
Of the English regions, the North West had the highest proportion of drinkers who “binged” on their heaviest drinking day (33%). This proportion was significantly higher than that in the South East, where 19% of drinkers “binged” on alcohol.38
A 2013 study in England found that 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.39
Asking about ‘typical drinking’ risks missing out on the drinking that occurs on special occasions. A study found that atypical or special occasion drinking (e.g. during holidays or weddings) in England added over 120 million units of alcohol per week to population consumption.40
Last reviewed: 12/11/2019