A drinking nation? Wales and alcohol

English | Cymraeg

29 November 2010

Note: This report was funded and/or written by our predecessor organisation Alcohol Concern.

Executive summary

Alcohol has been produced and consumed in Wales for around 4,000 years, and has played a major role in the social, economic and cultural life of the country.

Particularly since the advent of industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries, drinking and occasional heavy drinking have become social norms in Wales, leading one historian to refer to alcohol as “the real opiate of the Welsh”. The drinks industry has been ever ready to take advantage of this appetite for alcohol, with three-for-one drinks promotions available as early as 1836.

This drinking culture did to some extent generate a counter-culture in the form of the Welsh temperance movement, and the campaign to secure and maintain Sunday closing of pubs in Wales. However, although these movements sought to portray themselves as guardians of Welsh values, they proved to be largely unsuccessful and unpopular in Wales.

Alcohol consumption in Wales has risen markedly in recent decades, with many people drinking well beyond the recommended guidelines. Over-consumption has manifested itself both in the problem of binge drinking in Wales’ town and city centres, and in a trend towards heavier drinking at home. In the latter case, home drinking seems to be encouraged by a policy of deep discounting of alcoholic drinks by major grocery retailers, with discounts often dependent on bulk purchases. Alcohol has also become closely linked to the widespread Welsh passion for sport, with major brewers seeking to enhance their Welsh brand by associating themselves with teams and events.

In addition, Wales has one of the most serious problems of drinking amongst young people below the legal age to purchase alcohol, with 54 per cent of 15 year old boys in Wales and 52 per cent of girls of that age saying they have been drunk at least twice.

Overall, it appears that a culture of alcohol overuse has developed and is continuing to develop in Wales, with drinking to get drunk becoming increasingly normal and socially acceptable. This was reinforced by responses to our face-to-face interviews with drinkers in one Welsh town in the summer of 2010. These found considerable enthusiasm for a “good piss up”, with heavy drinking often seen as an essential part of a good night out, and people only stopping drinking when they felt they could not drink any more. Regular drunkenness was seen by some as not only acceptable but as something to look forward too, even though it often led to regrettable incidents.

Awareness of the concept of units of alcohol was very low amongst interviewees, with a number of people reporting that they measured the limits of their alcohol consumption by how unwell or out of control they felt: “when the room starts to spin”, “when I have to be put in a taxi”. One other major factor limiting people’s drinking was price, with several people saying they drank according to how much alcohol they could afford to buy.

To address this situation of increasing alcohol misuse, and its increasing normalisation, Alcohol Concern makes a set of key recommendations in the report. Our aim is to support a shift in drinking habits and drinking culture in Wales towards a situation in which Wales has a healthier relationship with alcohol.