It is often said that there is a drinking culture in the UK, which normalises and to some extent encourages drinking alcohol. But what does this drinking culture look like in the modern day and what are the impacts of drinking culture on individuals and society as a whole?


What is the Drinking Culture in the UK?

Drinking alcohol is often associated with social occasions in the UK. From ‘pre-drinking’ and nights in the pub or club to summer beer gardens, a drink at home to unwind in the evening and the traditional boozy Christmas, there seem to be never-ending opportunities – and encouragement – when it comes to drinking alcohol.

When it comes to the specifics though, we need to dig into the data, which comes from two main sources. The first is the impact of drinking from sales and tax records, which tell us about total consumption and averages but not about who is drinking what and why. The second is from surveys, which give more detail but can be unreliable. Together they help us to get a picture of drinking habits across the UK.

The first thing to note is that, as a nation, we don’t drink much more than our European neighbours. Around a fifth of the population don’t drink at all and this figure is rising, particularly among young people. According to the charity Alcohol Change UK, the UK is around the European average in total consumption. It is, however, consistently among the highest when it comes to binge drinking and drunkenness. The very heaviest drinkers – accounting for just 4% of the population – consume nearly a third (30%) of all alcohol sold in the UK.


Social Impacts of Alcohol Consumption

The overall alcohol consumption in the UK has steadily fallen in the UK as a whole but heavy drinking remains a serious problem. Just under a quarter (24%) of adults in England and Scotland regularly drink more than the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guidelines and 27% admit to binge drinking on their heaviest drinking days.

The social consequences of drinking can be harmful to individuals and society as a whole. Intoxication can lead to lowered inhibitions and poor decision-making, which can increase the chances of being involved in risky behaviour, criminality, violence and anti-social behaviour.

The most common harms were being kept awake at night and feeling uncomfortable or anxious in a social situation. While these may seem relatively minor, this is not necessarily the case. Sleep disruption, for example, can have a considerable impact on health and quality of life if frequent and long-term.

Drinking can have a huge impact on families and relationships, as well as putting a strain on work, education and almost every other aspect of life.


The Economic Impact of Alcohol

It is difficult to put a precise figure on the economic implications of alcohol for a number of reasons. Issues such as alcohol-related absenteeism and lack of productivity can only be estimated and costs must be set against employment, tax revenues and other economic gains from the alcohol industry as a whole. Alcohol policy in the UK recognises that harmful drinking is very costly, however.

According to the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS), the most commonly cited figure for the economic impact of alcohol in the UK is £21 billion. This was the figure estimated by the Cabinet Office although the study is now 20 years old. A more recent study by the National Social Marketing Centre put the figure at £55.1 billion, taking into account crime and violence, healthcare costs, lost productivity and other elements associated with alcohol.

A 2019 review that pulled together the results of 124 previous studies involving 1.6 million hospital inpatients revealed the huge costs of the UK’s drinking culture on the NHS for the first time. It was reported that 10% of people in UK hospital beds are alcohol-dependent and one in five are doing themselves harm by their drinking. It was also estimated that the cost of treatment related to alcohol was £3.5 billion per year.


Binge Drinking and Public Health

Alcohol and public health are linked by more than just the financial cost – heavy as it might be. Alcohol is a causal factor in dozens of medical conditions, including a number of different types of cancer, high blood pressure and cirrhosis of the liver. The Mental Health Foundation also notes that people who drink alcohol are more likely to develop mental health problems.

Those with severe mental health illnesses are also more likely to have alcohol problems – although in some cases they may be drinking to ‘self-medicate’ rather than the alcohol having triggered the illness.

Including illnesses, accidents and violent incidents, alcohol misuse is the single biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15-49 year-olds in the UK, and the fifth biggest risk factor across all ages.


Alcohol Crime Rates

A Public Health England (PHE) survey found that people one in five adults had been harmed by the drinking of another person in the previous 12 months. Sometimes this might be something like being kept awake at night or feeling uncomfortable or anxious due to someone else’s drunken behaviour. These might sound relatively trivial but one in 50 said they had been physically assaulted, with far more feeling threatened.

In England and Wales, alcohol is thought to play a part in approximately 1.2 million violent incidents – almost half of all violent crimes. Alcohol is a factor in many cases of domestic violence and also in other types of crime such as theft and public disorder.


Does UK Drinking Culture Cause Addiction?

While there are some genetic and environmental risk factors, anyone can develop an alcohol addiction and the more you are exposed to alcohol, the more likely this becomes. There are estimated to be more than 600,000 dependent drinkers in England alone.

If you are concerned about your own drinking or that of a loved one, you don’t have to struggle alone. There is always help available so contact us today to see if we can help – call us today on 01908 489 421.

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