Eyes wide open: The cost of alcohol

Dr Richard Piper | July 2023 | 10 minutes

Alcohol Change UK wants to see a Britain with alcohol but without serious alcohol harm. This vision of a healthier, happier country is within our grasp if we embrace some changes.

But if we fail to change, it means putting millions of us at risk of serious, avoidable harm. We need our eyes wide open about the real costs of alcohol. So, what are these costs? And are there any benefits? Let’s start with the costs.

Personal costs

The average drinker in the UK spends £62,899 on alcohol in a lifetime.

The average drinker in the UK spends around £62,8991 on alcohol in a lifetime, based on a new estimate from Alcohol Change UK. We might expect that, for this amount of money, the benefits would be huge. But this brings with it many additional personal costs.

The most obvious personal cost of alcohol is to our health. Alcohol damages our bodies in multiple ways: our heart, our liver, our brains, our skin, our liver and our cells – causing seven forms of cancer. Most people who die from alcohol are not fully alcohol-dependent – they’re more likely to be heavy drinkers who had no idea quite how dangerous alcohol is.

Alcohol also often has a hidden but major effect on our relationships including contributing to domestic violence, family breakdown, alcohol-reliant friendships, or simply not being fully present with our family or friends.

Another personal cost is time. Alcohol can leave us with low energy, very poor sleep and more time recovering and less time living; and can even lead to whole evenings in which we forget what happened. So, it doesn’t just risk shortening our life, it also removes parts of the life that we have. One of the most common things reported by those people who have used alcohol heavily and taken back control of it, is how much more time they have.

Susan's story

Watch Susan's story on how alcohol nearly cost her everything but by getting the right kind of support she was finally able to be free of alcohol.

Societal costs

Alcohol is estimated to cost UK society more than £27 billion each year.

Alcohol is estimated to cost UK society more than £27 billion2 each year, including costs linked to health, crime and lost productivity.

Even if you don’t drink alcohol and are not affected by a drinker in your household, you still pay for the costs of alcohol harm. That’s because alcohol has huge societal costs.

Over 1.25m hospital visits a year are alcohol-related and right across our health system, from GPs to A&E, from liver wards to cancer wards to alcohol treatment services, the costs of alcohol health harms is estimated to run into billions each year.

There are also massive costs linked to alcohol-related crime. Police time, court time and prison costs relating to alcohol also add up to many billions every year.

Alcohol harm has an additional negative effect on the labour market, driving unemployment and under-employment and is one of the leading causes of lost workplace productivity. If we can end alcohol harm, we would see a huge, national economic boost.

What about the benefits?

Alcohol can help us feel a bit tipsy and lower our inhibitions. Although this might be appealing for some, it can also lead to some of us undertaking activities that are anti-social, risky or unwise. Therefore, although the initial flush of drinking might feel good to some, alcohol’s intrinsic nature can encourage us to ‘overdo it’ making it very difficult to keep just slightly tipsy.

Many of us also enjoy the taste of alcoholic drinks. Of course, in recent years there has been an explosion of alcohol-free versions of alcoholic drinks, which in many cases are almost indistinguishable from alcoholic versions which is why they are so popular for those who drink mainly for taste and don’t want to feel out of control. Switching to alcohol-free drinks gives us the taste without any of the health and other risks.

The third benefit of alcohol is that alcohol producers and associated industries (marketing, retail, hospitality) create very large profits for shareholders, which include many pension companies; pay tax; and generate employment. However, like any economic good, these benefits only hold if the product itself has what economists call ‘use value’ to society and to people’s lives. Unfortunately, this is not the case with alcohol. If people didn’t spend so many tens of thousands of pounds in a lifetime on alcohol, they would spend it on something else, almost certainly something with fewer costs to themselves and to society, meaning gains to the economy, society and to all citizens. So, these ‘economic benefits’ are almost certainly illusory.

A Britain with alcohol but without the harm would be a healthier, happier place for us all.

What we are left with, then, is a product that has a huge range of personal, societal and economic costs which massively outweigh alcohol’s limited, short-term benefits. It is a mistake to treat alcohol as though it is important or even essential to life, culture, or society. We as citizens can and should make simple changes so we can stop paying these costs without removing alcohol from society. A Britain with alcohol but without the harm would be a healthier, happier place for us all.

Reducing alcohol harm

To reduce the cost of alcohol for us all, we need to implement evidence-based policies that work.


1 Opinium survey carried out online between 6-9 June 2023. Total sample size was 2,000 UK adults, of whom 1,474 said they were drinkers. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

2 Burton, R. et al. (2016). A rapid evidence review of the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of alcohol control policies: an English perspective.

Important note on alcohol withdrawal

People who are clinically alcohol dependent can die if they suddenly, completely stop drinking. If you experience fits, shaking hands, sweating, seeing things that are not real, depression, anxiety, or difficulty sleeping after a period of drinking and while sobering up, then you may be clinically alcohol dependent and should NOT suddenly, completely stop drinking. But you can still take control of your drinking. Talk to a GP or your local community alcohol service who will be able to get help for you to reduce your drinking safely. Find out more.