Drinking trends in the UK

Drinking trends in the UK change all the time. They also vary by age, gender, and where people live.

Looking at these trends tells us who is drinking what, but also how culture may be changing. This factsheet outlines some of the main patterns, and what they tell us about alcohol in today’s society.

Over the last century, the overall amount of alcohol consumed per person in the UK has risen and fallen repeatedly. Since reaching a peak in the mid-2000s, consumption has been falling steadily – especially among young people. Today, average consumption per adult is about 9.7 litres of pure alcohol per year – or about 18 units a week.

There is no reason to think that drinking behaviours are fixed or unchanging. The evidence tells us that they move in response to shifts in social attitudes, marketing and legislation. However, it also tells us that these changes vary across society: so what happens among young drinkers may not be the same among older groups, or average consumption in one region may differ substantially from another.

There is no reason to think that drinking behaviours are fixed or unchanging - they move in response to shifts in social attitudes, marketing and legislation.

Who does the drinking?

Average consumption figures are useful, but limited. They show roughly what is happening across the population, but not what is happening among specific individuals or social groups.

Around 20% of the population don’t drink at all – and this figure is increasing among young people in particular. Among those who do drink, patterns of consumption vary enormously:

  • higher earners are more likely to drink than those on lower incomes
  • older people are more likely to drink regularly
  • men are more likely to ‘binge drink’ than women (though this is less the case among the young)

Most of the alcohol sold in the UK is bought by people who drink heavily. Indeed, the very heaviest drinkers – who make just 4% of the population - consume around 30% of all the alcohol sold in the UK. It has recently been estimated that about a quarter of the profits made by the alcohol industry arise from these very heavy drinkers.

While youth drinking has been falling steadily, consumption among older people has not changed at the same rate. People aged 55-64 are more likely than anyone else to drink at higher risk levels, and are least likely not to drink at all. It may be that a generation who drank heavily in the 1990s and 2000s is bringing those habits into middle age, with potentially serious consequences for their long-term health.

Alcohol and gender

Drinking patterns also vary by gender. Historically, men have consumed more than women and this remains the case today. However, the difference between genders has narrowed considerably in recent years, so that among younger drinkers the amounts consumed (and the amount of ‘binge drinking’ involved) is similar – and, in some cases, higher among young women.

One reason why overall consumption increased so much from the 1970s is that many more women began to drink. This is also reflected in what people drink. In 1970, most alcohol was drunk as beer and in pubs. Wine was expensive and not widely available.

Since then wine sales have ballooned as the global wine trade has expanded, prices have fallen and supermarkets have made wine widely available. So today we consume most of our units as wine, and mostly in the home.

A British drinking culture?

Not only has ‘British drinking culture’ changed over time, but it varies by region. The North East, North West and South West have higher levels of consumption than London and the South East, for example. In Scotland, consumption levels are consistently higher than in England, with most of the difference being accounted for by cheap alcohol sold in off-licences.

Nonetheless, there are broad patterns of behaviour that are more common in the UK than elsewhere. Compared to other countries in Europe, the UK is near the average in terms of overall consumption. However, it is consistently among the highest for binge drinking. This reflects the fact that, on average, drinking in the UK tends to involve more drunkenness than elsewhere. This, of course, makes it riskier even when the overall amount consumed is lower than some of our neighbours.

How reliable are the figures?

Statistics on alcohol consumption come from three main sources: sales data, taxation data and national surveys. Sales and tax data provide accurate figures on how much alcohol has been produced and sold, but very little on who is doing the drinking and how much they consume. Survey data tells us more about how much individuals actually consume – but can be very unreliable.

If we compare the amount people say they drink in surveys with how much the Government data tells us is actually sold, then it turns out we drink about 50% more than we say. Recent research has explored ways to improve the accuracy of survey data, and to understand whether under-reporting is more acute among heavier or lighter drinkers.

Although our data is imperfect, what we know for certain is that drinking behaviours in the UK are dynamic. They change over time and in response to a range of influences. These influences include the affordability and availability of alcohol, but also our changing cultural attitudes to alcohol. The recent fall in youth consumption illustrates how attitudes to the role of alcohol in social life can shift, and how harms can be reduced as a result. However, these changes are not universal and more needs to be done to help ensure future social change is in a positive direction.

What we know for certain is that drinking behaviours in the UK are dynamic and they change over time.

Further resources

Office for National Statistics: Adult drinking habits in Great Britain

World Health Organisation: Global status report on alcohol and health

Health Survey for England: Alcohol

Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey: Alcohol dependence

NHS Health Scotland: MESAS monitoring report 2018