Study finds better-educated men more likely to drink hazardous amount than less-educated counterparts, but difference much more pronounced for womenDangerous drinking among better-educated women has contributed to an increase in alcohol consumption over the last 30 years in the UK, bucking a downward trend in industrialised countries, according to a large international study.
The report, Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use, by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that on average, each person in the UK consumes 10.6 litres of pure alcohol a year, compared with 9.5 litres across the OECD’s 34 member countries. The study said the UK was the 11th heaviest-drinking country out of the 40 that it examined.
While better-educated men in the UK are also more likely to drink a hazardous amount (defined as a weekly consumption of 21 units or more for men, or 14 or more for women) than their less-educated counterparts, the difference is much more pronounced for women.
OECD economist Mark Pearson, who supervised the report, said: “Part of the story in this is the way work drinking habits have actually changed. The more highly educated you are as a woman the more likely you are to be drinking. As more women have gone into professions, they have gone into high-end service industries that have a drinking culture, such as finance.”
The report says 20% of the UK population is responsible for more the 60% of country’s alcohol consumption and that more people start drinking at a younger age. The proportion of 15-year-olds who have drunk alcohol increased from 71% in 2002 to 75% in 2010.
In further evidence of women in Britain drinking more, the proportion of 15-year-old girls who have been drunk at least twice was 40%, the third highest in the OECD and higher than UK boys. Pearson suggested this may have been driven by seeing what their older female role models were doing.
The report makes the case for using a combination of policies, including raised costs and restriction of advertising to address the problem.
OECD analysis of the impact of alcohol abuse prevention policies in Canada, Czech Republic and Germany suggested that action could reduce rates of heavy drinking and alcohol dependence by 5% to 10%.
The UK already has relatively high levels of tax on alcohol but the last government backtracked on a plan to introduce minimum unit pricing. Pearson said what limited evidence there was on minimum pricing suggested it could help but it was not definitive. “The evidence suggest that if you’re a really higher drinker you’re much more likely to be purchasing the two for one supermarket offers,” he said. “It [minimum pricing] is quite well targeted at problem drinkers.”
For high-earning women who may be less responsive to price changes, he suggested printing the number of calories on labels might be more effective.
The UK Health Forum called the report “an alarm call for UK policymakers”.
Alcohol Concern’s chief executive, Jackie Ballard, said: “This report further reinforces the urgent need for implementation of evidence-based policies to limit the harms caused to society by alcohol.”
Rosanna O’Connor of Public Health England said: “Preventing alcohol-related harm is a priority for Public Health England and we will continue to work with national and local partners to promote measures to reduce harm, raise awareness of the harms, and promote good effective local interventions and treatment including specialist hospital services for all who need them.”
There was some positive news for the UK, with a reduction in the proportion of men and women who binge-drink (defined as twice the NHS guidelines) – 15% of men and women in 2013 compared with 19% in 2006.
Harmful consumption of alcohol rose from eighth to fifth leading cause of death and disability, worldwide, between 1990 and 2010 and the OECD says that that four in five drinkers would reduce their risk of death from any causes if they cut their alcohol intake by one unit a week.