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A new survey from the Office for National Statistics in Britain has found that one in five adults in the country doesn’t drink alcohol, a figure that has risen by around 10 percent since 2005. The observed increase in non-drinkers has been largely attributed to changes in the number of young adults (aged 16 to 24) who don’t drink, and similar changes have been reported in the numbers who binge drink. However, the findings are not without their criticisms, and many experts point out that the report paints a misleading picture of the true toll of drinking in Britain.
The takeaway from the survey is that the number of non-drinking adults in the U.K. has risen from 19 percent in 2005 to 21 percent in 2013. For young adults, the percentage saying they don’t drink has increased by a massive 40 percent since 2005, and this finding has been identified as the key reason for the observed decrease in Britain on the whole. In London, almost one-third (32 percent) of adults don’t drink, according to the survey, a much higher rate than in other regions with historically low drinking rates, including the West Midlands (25 percent) and Wales (22 percent).
The findings with non-drinking are roughly echoed by those on binge drinking, which show an overall decrease from 18 percent in 2005 to 15 percent in 2013. Again, young people are primarily responsible for this decrease, with the number of 16- to 24-year-olds reporting bingeing falling by more than one-third, from 29 percent in 2005 to 18 percent in 2013. In addition, only one in 50 young adults reported drinking alcohol frequently in 2013, a figure that has fallen two-thirds since 2005.
There are also some regional differences in binge drinking. Among those who’d had a drink in the past week, those living in the north of England or Scotland were more likely to have binged than people from other regions of Britain.
The report has come under fire for some crucial omissions. The most widely repeated critique of the findings is the lack of breakdown by ethnic or religious background. Since many Muslims don’t drink, the increasing numbers of Muslims in the U.K. may have impacted the findings, particularly because Muslims have the lowest average age of all the major religious groups in the U.K. This discrepancy may explain the lower drinking rates observed in both young people overall and those living in London: 40 percent of Britain’s Muslims live in London, accounting for 12.4 percent of the population there in comparison to 4.4 percent of the U.K. population overall.
Additionally, the increase in the number of elderly people in Britain—who don’t drink as much as younger adults—may be impacting the findings. Said professor Mark Bellis of the Faculty of Public Health: “This survey is hiding lots of alcohol consumption in groups whom we need to challenge about the issue, such as middle-aged drinkers who are known to drink far more than recommended levels without considering it to be a problem.”
Finally, there are indications that people may be underestimating their drinking when responding to the survey. Professor Ian Gilmore, founder of Alcohol Health Alliance UK, points out that data from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC, which handles tax revenue) suggest that people are drinking about twice as much as they claim to be.
He continues, “If you divide the total amount of alcohol bought by the number of non-teetotalers in this country, you find that people are drinking an average of 25 units a week. That means that far from reducing alcohol intake, the average person’s drinking is at the highest possible end of the maximum recommended limit.”
Critics of the study also point out that a clearer picture can be obtained by looking at the figures that really count, in particular relevant health outcomes. For example, between 2012 and 2013, there were over 1 million hospital admissions related to alcohol in England alone. Additionally, alcohol-related deaths increased by 19 percent from 2001 to 2012, despite decreasing slightly from 2011 to 2012. The number of prescriptions written for medicines to treat alcoholism has also increased notably. Over 180,000 prescriptions were issued in 2013, costing over 3.1 million pounds, more than double the 1.5 million spent on such medicines in 2004. When all alcohol-related costs to the National Health Service (NHS) are combined, the total cost approaches 3 billion pounds.
According to Jackie Ballard, chief executive of the charity Alcohol Concern, more than half of drinkers do so at risky levels, including middle-aged and older drinkers. She adds, “We should also be concerned that nearly 4,000 under-18s were hospitalized in the U.K. with alcohol poisoning last year. Children and young people in the U.K. are still more likely than those in almost any other European country to have been drunk by the age of 13, to have drunk at least once in the last month and to have the most positive expectations of drinking.”
The positive findings from this report come with caveats, and although the overall trend across the country seems to be moving in the right direction, it’s clear that using the findings to downplay the alcohol-related harm in the U.K. is highly misleading. In particular, tackling drinking among older adults and those living in the hardest-hit regions of the U.K. should be a priority, as well as helping more of those struggling with alcohol dependency find treatment.