This new story was The Guardian front page headline back in February.
Does that make today a Good Friday? 😉 Britain is becoming a nation of teetotallers, with young adults and Londoners leading the way, according to new figures which suggest one in five adults are not drinking.
More than one in five adults (21%) do not drink alcohol at all, according to the Office for National Statistics’ Adult Drinking Habits in Great Britain report released on Friday. The figure was 19% in 2005.
Young adults aged 16 to 24 were primarily responsible for the fall in numbers, with the proportion of young adults who reported that they do not drink alcohol at all increasing by more than 40% between 2005 and 2013.
There were strong regional differences found in alcohol consumption. Almost a third of adults in London (32%) said that they did not drink alcohol at all. This was considerably higher than any other region of Britain.
The study, however, has been criticised by experts for failing to capture the ethnic or religious breakdown of respondents. Professor Mark Bellis, spokesman for the Faculty of Public Health who sits on the scientific expert advisory panel to the Home Office, warned that the survey findings could be dangerous if taken at face value.
“There’s no doubt that the growth of ethnic-minority groups and the increase in the older population, who drink far less than younger people, make it dangerous to look at this survey and say, ‘Yes, people are drinking less’,” said Bellis, who is also an honorary consultant with the Health Protection Agency.
“This survey is hiding lots of alcohol consumption in groups who we need to be challenging on the issue, such as middle-aged drinkers who are well known to drink far more than recommended levels without considering it to be a problem.”
Others, including Lord Brooke, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on alcohol harm and Diane Abbott, the shadow public health minister and candidate for the London mayoralty in 2016, also questioned the relevance of the report, pointing out that researchers did not take into account the changing demographics of Britain, in particular the growth of the largely non-drinking Muslim population.
“It’s good news but hardly relevant because what it shows is an underlying trend among an unrepresentative segment of the population,” said Brooke. “If you look at the outcomes that count: the increase in liver disease and diabetes, and the numbers of young people seeking help for alcohol-related problems in A&E departments, you soon see that this report is misleading by not accurately representing what’s going on in society.”
Abbott agreed. “The picture the ONS has painted is completely misleading because it doesn’t account for the growing proportion of Muslims in the population who don’t drink at all,” she said.
“The finding that Londoners have the highest rate of teetotallers in Great Britain is likely to be affected by the fact that Islam is the city’s largest minority religion: 40% of England’s Muslims live in London.
She added: “Muslims have the lowest average age out of all the major religious groups in the United Kingdom: probably hence the fall in the rates the ONS found of young people drinking.”
“A better indication of alcohol harm is to look at the rises in alcohol-related health issues and domestic violence,” she said. “I think that’s a clue that if you take away the Muslim community and perhaps those people who are particularly health-orientated from this survey, what we’re seeing in the general population is rising levels of alcohol abuse.”
Matt Bale, an ONS researcher who worked on the report, conceded that the team working on the report had not recorded the ethnic breakdown of those questioned. “We didn’t think it would be that new or interesting,” he said.
He also acknowledged the findings were likely to be skewed by people consciously or unconsciously underestimating their alcohol consumption. “We asked people about their drinking but we don’t measure it ourselves or factor in people’s propensity to not give the whole truth in this area of self-reporting,” he said.
“HMRC data shows that people are buying twice as much alcohol as they admit to,” said Gilmore, chair of Liverpool Health Partners. “If you divide the total amount of alcohol bought by the number of non-teetotallers in this country, you find that people are drinking an average of 25 units a week. That means that the average amount people are drinking is higher than the maximum recommended limit.”
The survey found that binge drinking among adults decreased from 18% in 2005 to 15% in 2013, although it has remained relatively unchanged since 2011. Young adults were mainly responsible for the decrease, with the proportion who had binged falling by more than a third since 2005, from 29% to 18%.
The report also found the proportion of young adults who drank frequently has fallen by more than two-thirds since 2005: only one in 50 young adults drank alcohol frequently in 2013.
Adults in the north of England and in Scotland who drank in the week before being interviewed, however, were more likely to have binged than adults elsewhere in Britain. About a third of drinkers in these regions had binged, compared with less than a quarter of those in other parts of the country.
But Alcohol Concern figures show there are still 3,000 alcohol-related admissions to hospital each day, with a third of adults drinking more than the recommended levels of alcohol. Once the financial impact of alcohol-related problems on A&E, GPs and hospital outpatient clinics is taken into account, the charity found, the cost to the NHS of alcohol harm is nearly £3bn.
Jackie Ballard, chief executive of the charity, said: “I welcome the increase in the numbers of young people who are teetotal and able to resist peer and drinks-industry pressure. Likewise the decrease in binge drinking is welcome, but we must not fool ourselves into thinking that this means alcohol harm has gone away.
“More than half of those who drink do so at risky levels, and middle-aged and older drinkers are regularly drinking above recommended limits. It’s this regular drinking of a bit too much too often that stores up all sorts of health problems and explains the 8,400 deaths a year directly related to alcohol.
“We should also be concerned that nearly 4,000 under-18s were hospitalised in the UK with alcohol poisoning last year. Children and young people in the UK are still more likely than those in almost any other European country to have been drunk by the age of 13, to have drunk at least once in the last month and to have the most positive expectations of drink.”
Rosanna O’Connor, director of alcohol, drugs and tobacco at Public Health England (PHE), said: “It is encouraging to see this increase in the proportion of young adults not drinking and that more young adults who do drink are drinking less frequently.
“But the picture isn’t all positive and there are varying patterns of drinking habits across the country, with the figures suggesting people in the north of England are more likely to binge drink.”
Alcohol-related problems were still widespread in England, O’Connor said, and alcohol was one of the leading risk factors for illness and premature death. “This is especially true among disadvantaged groups and deprived communities.
“Preventing alcohol-related harm is a priority for PHE and we will continue to provide leadership – sharing with local areas the evidence and what works to impact on these figures – helping to reduce the devastating harm that alcohol can cause to individuals, families and communities.”
Dr James Nicholls, director of research at Alcohol Research UK, also welcomed the report. “This is good news, especially as the biggest shift is among young people,” he said. “But what the research shows is the intense regional variation: that in the major cities, drinking is going down but in theeast Midlands, north-east and north-west, the statistics have flatlined or are going up.”
Alcohol misuse is a leading cause of ill health in Britain. It can contribute to a number of serious health conditions, including cancer, liver disease and heart disease. In 2011-12 there were more than 1m alcohol-related hospital admissions in England alone.
Dr Natasha Bijlani, a consultant psychiatrist at the Priory hospital in Roehampton, said that if the figures were true then they were great news. But, she added, the lack of a demographic breakdown meant it was “hard to take the survey seriously and perhaps safer to take the findings with a pinch of salt”.
A Department of Health spokesman said: “It is extremely pleasing to see that the number of people binge drinking continues to go down, and it is particularly good to see that young people are drinking less and hopefully getting into healthier drinking habits for life.”
A spokesman for the Portman Group, which represents the alcohol industry, said: “It is welcome news that binge drinking continues to decline, particularly among young people, and more people are drinking within guidelines.
“This week official statistics have also shown an 18% decline in alcohol-related violent crime in just one year, and the alcohol-related death rate fell to its lowest level since 2000. These positive trends are part of a decade-long culture change around our improving relationship with alcohol in this country.
“But alcohol-related harms still remain and some local areas suffer much more than others. The best way to support these communities is to get local businesses, police, local authorities and health services working together to improve town centres, tackle harmful drinking and make our high streets safer places to enjoy.”