Targeted help needed to tackle the heaviest drinkers in the UK says alcohol watchdog

As Alcohol Awareness Week kicks off, analysis of drinking habits across England and Scotland shows that the majority of people are drinking either at or below the current guidelines, with drinking at harmful levels becoming most prevalent in middle-aged people and in the most deprived areas.

Analysis of public data by The Portman Group shows that there has been a recent decline in levels of binge drinking. Since 2005 the proportion of people in the UK drinking five days a week has fallen, with more than 9 in 10 reporting three or more alcohol-free days in the last week when asked in 2017. In fact, since 2008, adults in Great Britain have become more likely to report being teetotal than to have indulged in binge drinking in the last week.

The Scottish Health Survey also reveals a shift in alcohol consumption. In 2003, Scottish men were more likely to be drinking above today’s guidelines than below, whereas only a third did so in 2016. The figures show that 12.5% of Scottish men are non-drinkers and 52.6% drink under 14 units per week. Meanwhile, Scottish women are now more likely to be non-drinkers than to drink above 14 units.

When it comes to those drinking at the higher risk end of the scale, statistics show that age and neighbourhood deprivation are key factors to consider. ‘Higher risk’ is normally defined as over 35 units a week for women and over 50 for men.

In England, men aged 55-64 have the greatest tendency to be drinking at harmful levels. This group also suffers a lot of alcohol-related harm; in 2017, alcohol-related hospital admissions were mostly male and 39% were aged 45-64. Curiously, men and women over 45 have become more likely to binge drink over the period 2005 to 2017. Young men, although still the group most likely to be binge drinking, have become less likely to binge drink than before.

The average intake for men drinking above current guidelines surpasses 40 units per week in the most deprived areas of Scotland. Outcomes, too, have been shown to differ by neighbourhood.  South of the border, even though surveys show that affluent people are more likely to drink, the rate of hospital admissions in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods for ‘alcohol-specific conditions’ is twice that in the least deprived 10%. These conditions, which range from alcohol poisoning to cirrhosis of the liver, signal a very high intake of alcohol either in the long or short term.

John Timothy, Chief Executive of the Portman Group, commented, “The stats show that the majority of people in England and Scotland are drinking sensibly. The explosion of the low and no alcohol market also demonstrates that awareness is growing about mindful drinking.

“We know that there is a strong link between deprivation and harmful drinking. This strengthens the case for targeted interventions and approaches to combat this rather than blanket policies.”

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