Throughout history, alcohol has been a prominent fixture in UK culture. For a great many Brits, it often serves as the basis for social gatherings; catching up with friends is typically done over a few drinks.
But is this the case today as much as it has been previously? Do we drink more or less alcohol now than we have done in eras gone by? And will we continue to drink as much in the future?
As we’ll discuss, the answers to these questions aren’t entirely straightforward.
Statistics: 1961 to now
According to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, in the UK in 2015, the level of consumption (in pure alcohol terms) was 9.5 litres per capita; and since 2012, this has remained stable, staying between 9.4 and 9.6 litres. However, UK alcohol consumption has fallen since it reached a 55-year high in 2004, of 11.6 litres per capita.
So if the question is: overall, do we drink less alcohol in 2017 than we did 10-15 years ago?
Then the answer is: yes.
But these same OECD figures show that UK alcohol consumption is higher today than it was when this particular record began in 1961. Back then, the level of consumption per capita was 7.1 litres.
From 1961 onwards, the figures show a more or less steady rise in consumption (with significant jumps in the early-mid 1970s and around the millennium) up until 2004, after which they start to fall again and settle at current levels.
Comparing consumption figures from today with those from the past couple of centuries is much less straightforward. Pre-1935 figures from the 1940 book Alcohol and the Nation, cited by James Nicholls in his article The highs and lows of drinking in Britain (published on History and Policy), seem to show a peak in consumption around the mid-1870s.
These figures are not directly comparable to those of today in the OECD; those in the OECD are presented in estimated levels of pure alcohol, whereas those in the above-mentioned article are presented in total drink volume.
In theory, applying the OECD guideline pure alcohol estimates (beer being 4-5% alcohol, wine being 11-16% and spirits being 40%) to those pre-1935 figures would suggest a level of per capita consumption of around 8.7 litres in the mid-1870s; roughly equivalent to early 1970s levels, and slightly lower than those of today. However this figure would only be, at best, a very rough approximation.
For instance, the black market and unrecorded sale (and subsequent consumption) of alcohol may have been more prolific in the 1800s; potentially making record-keeping less accurate.
Rise in teetotalism
Coming back to the present day, according to the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey carried out by the ONS, in 2016, 56.9 percent of the British population aged over 16 drank alcohol. This is the lowest rate recorded by the survey since it started in 2005, when 64.2 percent of the population said that they drank alcohol; which would indicate a pronounced rise in teetotalism over the past decade.
A recent survey carried out on behalf of The Grocer found that 41 percent of participants were actively trying to reduce their alcohol intake; a significant rise from 33 percent the previous year.
So what factors could be behind these recent trends? And how might these factors be responsible for other changes in our drinking habits?
There’s little doubt that today, people are more aware of the negative impact alcohol can have on their health; and awareness of these risks could be one of the driving forces behind people deciding to either reduce their alcohol intake, or completely abstain.
Recent guidance published by the Chief Medical Officer states that there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption; but there are levels of consumption considered to be lower risk. This is 14 units per week for adults. When someone does consume 14 units per week, the guidelines state this this should be spread over three or more days.
The new guidance was widely reported and debated in the media; meaning that consumers were likely, if they didn’t already know, to learn of the health risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption.
But is this awareness and rise in abstinence being reflected in health statistics? Not yet, it would seem.
Figures from NHS Digital show that alcohol-related hospital admissions (narrow measure) in England were 3 percent higher in 2015/6 than they were in 2014/5, and 22 percent higher in 2015/6 than they were in 2005/6. The number of alcohol related deaths In England increased by 10 percent between 2005 and 2015.
In recent years, raising the price of alcohol has often been thought of as a route to reducing excessive alcohol use. Since 2004, the price of alcohol has increased by an estimated 36 percent, according to Alcohol Concern.
However, this rise in cost might not be as big a factor in lowering drinking levels as it appears to be at first glance. Alcohol is still more affordable today than it has been in previous decades. According to a report by the Institute of Alcohol Studies, purchasing alcohol was 45 percent more affordable in 2013 than it was in 1980. The report cites low supermarket prices ‘taking advantage of economies of scale’ as a significant factor in this.
To go out, or to stay in?
Over the last 20 years there has been a significant shift in where people do their drinking. As statistics from the Beer and Pub Association show, the total number of pubs and clubs in the UK has decreased dramatically, as people are opting more to socialise and drink at home.
Higher prices in pubs and clubs, as they attempt to compensate for the shortfall in custom, compared to cheaper supermarket prices, could be a catalyst in perpetuating this shift.
A more pronounced media focus on troublesome binge drinking in public may also have led people to conclude that drinking at home is less problematic.
Quality over quantity
Drinking trends could also be part of the reason why alcohol consumption levels are starting to dip. Craft beers and gin are examples of alcoholic beverages currently in vogue; and more specialist varieties will often carry a higher price tag. This may be leading an increasing number of people to spend their money on fewer drinks at more expensive prices.
Generational factors may also be playing a role in changing cultural attitudes towards alcohol. According to ONS figures, 27 percent of people under 25 are teetotalers.
Several theories have been put forward as potential instigators of this trend, such as:
- young people not having as much disposable income
- young people spending more of their free time online
- more prominence being given to healthy lifestyle trends, particularly through social media
- and non-drinking cultures having a bigger influence.
However, the subject of young people and alcohol is something of a double-edged sword, as figures from the ONS also suggest that 16-24 year olds, although less likely to drink overall, will drink more alcohol than any other age group on their heaviest drinking day.
So while alcohol consumption among older generations is more widespread; younger people who do drink are more likely to drink in higher amounts.
What will happen in the future?
Figures in the UK over the last three years have stabilised, which makes it difficult to determine which direction they will head in during the immediate future.
The above-mentioned article by James Nicholls tells us that dips in alcohol consumption levels tend to accompany periods of economic recession. The UK’s economic outlook at present has arguably never been more difficult to predict; which in turn makes any related estimations of alcohol consumption even less certain.
Taking the changing attitudes towards alcohol in younger people into account, a strong case could be made that teetotalism over the long-term will continue to rise among future generations; and in turn, overall alcohol consumption will fall.
That said, it is entirely possible that unforeseen economic or cultural trends may be responsible for changes we have not considered, and prove counter to this theory.