Wednesday, May 20, 2009

England and Alcohol

New statistics on alcohol use and abuse were published today by the National Health Service Information Centre,and they make fascinating reading. Of course, the stories in the newspaper in the morning will be full of the usual horror stories of x percent of the population who are consuming more than y units per week/day/hour, but the
actual data contains some more interesting facts:

1. Although the methodology changed, so it's not that easy to compare the
latest years, it appears that drinking levels are pretty stable, and if
anything may have reduced in the first half of this decade.

2. Binge drinking by men aged 16-24 has actually fallen considerably.
The percentage who drank more than 8 units at least one day in the week before
interview (the definition of binge used here) fell from 39% in 1998 to 27% in
2006. Headline writers take note: that's a drop of around 30 percent in binge
drinking by young males.

3. Women's consumption is still lower than men's, but it's intriguing to note
that since the change in methodology, the difference in drinking patterns between
the age groups has reduced considerably. It's no longer just young women and men
who drink heavily. Don't know if that's down to the methodology or due to a real
levelling in drinking habits across the generations.

4. It's not the council estates and tower blocks who drink to excess. Possibly
because they're all strung out on smack, or locked indoors watching the Shameless
box-set they lifted from HMV (joke). No, really, the working classes drink less
than the middle classes. (see chart)

5. One of the most significant changes in our alcohol consumption has been the
long-term decline in drinking outside the home. Basically, the decline of traditional
pub culture. We still drink more beer outside the home, but only just - whereas
only 5 or 6 years ago the difference was around 50%; that is we used to drink around
half as much beer again in pubs as we would do at home, but not any more.

Wine consumption has grown massively, but only at home, not in pubs or wine bars.

We also appear to be drinking more spirits at home in the last few years, but less
in pubs, according to the data.

6. Price might be a factor, but the statistics suggest that the real price of
drinking has been pretty stable over many years, once inflation is taken into
account. Household disposable income has however risen significantly. Basically,
we could afford to drink a good deal more than in the past, so its a miracle more
of us aren't more drunk more of the time... Clearly there's more to life.

7. Of course, alcohol abuse is a serious matter, and can have a terrible impact on
many areas of life: personal, family, social etc. But for the majority of people
most of the time, it's not an issue. We can handle it, basically, and we do.

8. Hospital admissions for alcohol-related conditions have been increasing according
to these statistics. The largest numbers (and biggest contributor to the rise)
relate to mental illness linked to alcohol but it's hard to disentangle
administrative data of this sort, as the changes could easily reflect a greater
focus on alcohol-related problems by the services tasked with dealing with them.
Basically, cases previously ignored may now be being picked up by the system, and
this could be responsible for the rise in hospital admissions. It's hard to tell.
But alcohol-related hospital admissions appear to be rising in every category,
including those which might be less affected by policy changes and practitioner
focus. So there may be some substance to their rising numbers and the suggestion
that for a minority alcohol abuse causing severe problems is a social issue of
increasing importance.

You can read the actual report here:

or just read the usual nonsense in the Daily Press in the morning...

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