Almost half of all British adults can be considered “Binge drinkers” according to new research from the University College of London (UCL). The findings of the study have further increased pressure on alcohol producers and retailers with doctors and politicians alike now calling for major action to save lives and reduce the £21bn cost of alcohol misuse.
Whereas official surveys rely upon participant assumptions as to how much they drink, UCL researchers analysed sales figures and found that only 60% of alcohol purchased was accounted for. Taking the missing 40% into account they calculated that almost 75% of men and 80% of women sometimes exceed the daily limits of alcohol consumption; three to four units for men and two to three units for women—far more than the 56% (men) and 54% (women) reported to the Health Survey for England 2008.
In addition 44% of men and 31% of women exceeded the weekly alcohol consumption limit and almost half of the general adult population consumed more than 8 (men) and 6 (women) units of alcohol in a single sitting. This classifies them as binge drinkers, according to Department of Health standards.
The president of the Royal College of Physicians, Sir Richard Thompson said the study, “Contradicts the claims of the alcohol industry that only a small minority drink too much, and is yet more evidence of the need for strong government action, including a minimum unit price for alcohol.”
Diane Abbott, the Labour Party’s public health MP struck a similar chord and called for nothing short of a “political and cultural earthquake” to reduce alcohol abuse, which claimed almost 9,000 lives in 2011.
Since 2003, hospital admissions in relation to alcohol abuse have more than doubled and there has been a 67% increase in drugs prescribed to treat alcohol dependency.
In addition to well known side effects such as cancer and heart disease, excessive alcohol consumption has been reported to damage the DNA of unborn children as well causing Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). According to the Guardian, one in every 100 British children have some form of FAS which can cause life-long learning disabilities amongst other physical and mental ailments.
Nonetheless Britain’s teenagers also appear to be at risk. Today’s average 16 year olds drink twice as much alcohol as those of 10 years ago. British teenage girls are the biggest binge drinkers on the continent and the UK’s 13 year olds are more likely to be drunk than almost any other European nation.
Cheap alcohol, particularly in supermarkets where “buy one get one free” and other multi-purchase offers are often present, has been cited as a primary cause of alcohol abuse. According to a report published by Alcohol Concern, it is cheaper for young people to get drunk than to go to the cinema or engage in other social activities with friends. Adjusted for inflation, the report, “‘Binge – Drinking to get drunk: Influences on young adult drinking behaviours” found that alcohol is 45% more affordable today than it was in 1980.
In December last year, Prime Minister David Cameron was quoted by the Daily Telegraph as claiming that there was “good evidence to suggest that what some supermarkets are doing is actually pushing up the price of food to heavily pay for very discounted, very cheap alcohol.”
He also endorsed plans to ban the sale of alcohol for less than 45p per unit (10ml of pure alcohol). This plan would affect 59% of alcoholic products sold in off-licenses and supermarkets and raise prices. The Government believes that this would result in the number of crimes committed dropping by 24,000 a year. In addition it would save 2,000 lives a year and result in 66,000 fewer hospital admissions after 10 years. In Scotland a 50p per unit minimum price legislation has been passed and is set to be implemented.
However, reaction to a potential minimum unit price in England has been mixed. Some have voiced concerns that the law would unfairly affect low-income responsible drinkers and the European Commission has threatened the Government with legal action, arguing such policy would violate free trade laws.
At the same time, The Alcohol Health Alliance, which consists of 70 medical bodies and health charities, has called for the Government to take tougher action. In a report entitled “Health First: An evidence-based alcohol strategy for the UK,” published March 1 by the University of Stirling, the AHA advocates introduction of a 50p per unit minimum alcohol price, large health warnings on the packaging of alcoholic products and major restrictions on advertising in order to prevent underage drinking.
Professor Linda Bauld from the University of Stirling, who led the development of the strategy, says the British public is becoming increasingly aware of the nation’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol and that there was strong support of the proposal. “There is clearly an appetite for change, and our report sets out what needs to be done,” he said.
The Government is currently analysing the results of the 10 week public consultation program in regards to the minimum unit price for alcohol and is scheduled to release its findings in May.