A fascinating new (September 2015) report from Alcohol Concern and Drink Wise explores our current relationship with alcohol.
The report is based on a survey of 1250 UK adults who drink alcohol who all took the AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test) questionnaire – the standard alcohol screening instrument.
Participants were then allocated to one of four groups depending on their AUDIT score. Researchers used a quota system to ensure that the groups, ranging from lower-risk users to those who were possibly dependent were equally represented. The sample of all participants reflected the population as a whole in terms of age, socio-economic status and gender.
As well as providing evidence to back up previous findings into the UK’s drinking habits, there were some unexpected results:
- Women are rapidly gaining equality with men when it comes to hard drinking – 41% of drinkers in the possible alcohol dependent category were female.
- Contrary to the stereotype of the hard drinking working class male, this study found that people with possible alcohol dependence are actually more likely to be of a higher social class (ABC1) and well educated (degree-level or equivalent).
- The study found that adults who lived with children in the household were statistically more likely to be heavy drinkers, raising questions about the normalisation of excessive drinking for children at an early age.
- Results suggest that many potential alcohol dependent drinkers (AUDIT 20+) exist in a state of denial – with over half (54%) believing that they were ‘fairly normal’ when it came to their drinking habits.
- Alcohol misuse is contributing to the growing strain on healthcare resources in the UK – in the survey, people with possible dependence were three times more likely to have been admitted to hospital or use A&E than those with a lower drinking risk level (see this post for more details).
- It’s not the case that heavy drinkers don’t care about their fitness. In this study, 65% of those most at risk
said that they exercise at least twice a week.
- Many at-risk drinkers revealed that they regularly visited their GP. Two thirds of those showing risk of alcohol dependence had at least one comorbidity (another simultaneous medical condition), such as depression or anxiety, both of which are strongly linked to excessive alcohol intake.
When it came to heavy drinking, men aged 31 – 50 were the most at-risk group, but many women also drink alcohol at dangerous levels. According to the study, 41% of people who were classed as possible dependent drinkers were women.
Government statistics collected in 2010 showed that 19% of men reported drinking over 8 units and 12% of women reported drinking over 6 units on at least one day in the week prior to being interviewed.
Recent statistics published by Public Health England reveal that 59% of local authorities saw a rise in alcohol-related hospital admissions last year (2014). These admissions grew three times faster among women than men, with more than 64,000 women taken to hospital as a specific result of drinking in 2013/24.
The report attributes the increase in women’s heavy drinking to three possible factors:
- Attitudes have changes with alcohol consumption much more socially acceptable for women – although it remains true that many women are still mor likely to be drinking at home than in public.
- In the 1990s, there was a huge and well-documented increase in the amount that young women drank. It may be that as these women have grown older, they have maintained their drinking habits, rather than drop them after having children and families of their own.
- Women are much more likely to prefer wine (59% as opposed to 19% preferring beer). Since the early 1970s, there has been a huge increase in the amount of wine consumed in the UK and it has steadily become more intoxicating. Wines that were popular in the 70s were around 8-9% ABV (Alcohol by Volume), which meant that a bottle contained approximately 6-7 units. Now, many wines, which come from hotter climates in the New World where grapes ripen with higher sugar levels (meaning higher alcohol levels) contain around 14% ABV, approximately 10.5 units.
This research highlights that, despite the fact that drinking has been linked to a number of health consequences, heavy drinking is still commonplace and is often seen as normal social behaviour.
The authors say that information is key to promoting positive change; addressing two key areas of ignorance:
- Many people of all backgrounds are confused about the impact of alcohol on their health, and underestimate their drinking.
- It also seems that people simply don’t realise the extent of harm that excessive drinking can cause. (This may largely be due to the fact that the health consequences of heavy drinking can initially be more subtle than those of other lifestyle choices, such as smoking or drug abuse.)