The UK’s relationship with alcohol is culturally and historically significant, yet consumption appears to be in decline. As with many contemporary issues, a notable divide exists between age groups; a 2016 study from the Office for National Statistics (OfS) found that the youngest age group (16-24) was the least likely to drink, although on their heaviest drinking day they tend to drink more than other age groups.  

The research from OfS also found that being teetotal is on the rise among the youngest age groups (both 16-24 and 25-44): around a quarter of the combined group indicated they were teetotal. A different trend prevailed in the middle-aged and elderly groups: those describing themselves as teetotal stayed around 16% between 2005-2016 for the 45-64-year-old group, and for those in the 65+ bracket the number abstaining from alcohol dropped by 5% (from 29% in 2005 to 24% in 2016). Statistics showed that the two oldest groups were also disproportionately more likely to drink on five or more days a week than the two youngest groups.         

The UK’s Alcohol Culture Runs Deep 

Although current health concerns focus on the amount of alcohol being consumed by the British public, in the 8th century it was a staple part of the British diet among manual workers. Perhaps somewhat ironically, consumption of beer was also seen as a solution (due to the fermentation process) to the illnesses caused by drinking unsafe water supplies that were contaminated by sewage. There’s evidence even further back (12,000 years according to some reports) of alcohol fermentation jugs. However, it’s not until the arrival of the Romans (43 AD) that the origins of the UK’s pub culture were sown in the form of tabernae.  

According to an Independent article, the UK absorbed the northern European culture of “extremes of heavy episodic drinking,” and perhaps this, combined with the Roman pre-public house culture of social drinking, formed the foundations for the UK’s attitude to alcohol consumption today.  

The Church’s association with alcohol production also appears to be an important factor in the creation of contemporary attitudes. During the middle ages, “selling beer was a key component of many monastic economies… Monks brewed virtually all beer of good quality until the 12th century.” And it wasn’t simply the clergy responsible for making sure everyone’s cup was full. The 18th century saw gin production as the new in-vogue addition with the UK government encouraging production.  

Does New Advice Change Behaviour? 

With cholera-imbued water no longer being an issue, the UK’s decision to drink alcohol is now purely recreational (the benefits vs drawbacks of red wine drinking appear to have been greatly exaggerated). But how much is too much? It appears the ‘safe’ amount of alcohol consumption looks set to change soon. A Guardian article commenting on a report by the Lancet Medical Journal said the “five standard 175ml glasses of wine or five pints a week is the upper safe limit – about 100g of alcohol, or 12.5 units in total. More than that raises the risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm (a ruptured artery in the chest), heart failure and death.” The current advice is to limit weekly consumption of alcohol to 14 units. 

The new research has indicated the potential health complications associated with drinking are, according to David Spiegelhalter, “comparable to smoking.” Young people are growing up with a narrative around alcohol consumption that highlights its serious side effects; this attitude is bolstered by a lack of expendable cash among young people according to journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson: “one of the most recurrent [reasons for sobriety] was that between university tuition fees, the axing of maintenance grants and the sixth form EMA grant, and the perilously high cost of housing, they are pretty much broke.”     

Why Doesn’t the Government Implement Similar Restrictions to Smoking?  

While attitudes among young people appear to be shifting, the same cannot be said for the elderly: “mortality rates due to alcohol among people aged 75 and over, [sic] have risen to their highest level since records began in 1991.” This age group also happens to require the largest spend from the NHS: “health spending per person steeply increases after the age of 50.”  

Unlike the ‘sin tax’ on smoking, the British government has not imposed such restrictions on alcohol purchasing in England except for relatively small duty taxes. However, from Tuesday, 1st May 2018, the Scottish government will introduce a minimum pricing on alcohol. The aim of such a move is to discourage purchases of the cheapest, highest alcoholic strength by volume (ABV) drinks like super-strength ciders and beers.  

The law, challenged by the Scotch Whisky Association, is the first example of a country imposing such a ban. If successful, the rest of the UK may follow suit.  

Benefits of Alcohol to UK Economy 

Could the UK government’s lack of affirmative action on curbing alcohol consumption be down to the economic benefits it produces? According to a report from the Institute of Alcohol Studies, “the alcohol industry is a small, but not insignificant, part of the UK economy, contributing £46 billion a year, around 2.5% of total GDP, to national income.”  

In addition to GDP contributions, the industry is also responsible for “770,00 jobs, around 2.5% of all UK employment, the vast majority (506,000) of which are in pubs, clubs and bars.” However, the very same industry costs the NHS “around £3.5bn per year.” Additionally, the low wages of staff working in the service side of the alcohol industry results in less tax money finding its way into the chancellor’s budget. One report put the cost of “alcohol-related crime, lost output and ill health” at a staggering £52bn a year. 

Could the distribution of voters relate to the government’s stall over alcohol-related regulation? Voting statistics from YouGov covering the 2017 general election indicated that age groups from 40+ are more likely to vote, and they make up the largest proportion of the voting population. Pandering to the needs of this age group may be in the government’s interest if it wishes to stay in power, and legislation tackling alcohol consumption could quickly be jumped on by the popular press due to its newsworthy nature. The result could see the government’s popularity slide, increasing criticism of the “nanny state” style of governing the UK has often been singled out for.   

Do you think alcohol-related government legislation will be implemented across the UK soon, or is it a political hot potato that no one wants to handle? Comment below! 

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