How England’s Alcohol Industry Relies On Risky Drinkers

By May Wilkerson 01/26/16

A vast majority of alcohol sales in the UK are to consumers drinking "harmful" amounts of booze.

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Alcohol companies may tell you to “drink responsibly,” but consumer reports tell a different story.

New data from England finds that a whopping 60% of the country’s alcohol sales, or about 33.76 billion dollars in sales in England alone, come from people who drink potentially dangerous amounts. And 69% of the alcohol consumed is by "harmful," "hazardous," or "increasing risk" drinkers. Health experts from the United Kingdom accuse the industry of using irresponsible pricing and marketing tactics to hook unhealthy drinkers, all while keeping up a guise of promoting “responsible” drinking.

“We looked at data from the Health Survey for England and did some calculations on that and we found that in terms of the total alcohol consumed within that survey, 69% was consumed by hazardous and harmful drinkers together,” said Professor Nick Sheron of Southampton University, co-founder of the Alcohol Health Alliance.

Meanwhile, the number of alcohol-related hospitalizations in the United Kingdom has doubled in the past decade, to more than one million a year. Public Health England estimates that about 10.8 million Brits drink at risky levels and 1.6 million may have some level of alcohol dependence.

In research released last year, Sheron and colleagues revealed that male patients seeking treatment for liver problems had consumed a mean of 146 units of booze a week, about 63 pints of beer, while female drinkers had consumed 142 units. Most had purchased cheap alcohol, at a median price of $0.43 per unit, whereas low-risk drinkers spent about $1.60 per unit. The most common cheap booze was strong cider, which is sold in three-liter bottles in outlet stores for just $0.20 per unit.

“There’s no doubt that the drinks industry depends on excessive drinking to drive its profits,” said Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance. “Drinks like high-strength white ciders are preferentially consumed by heavy and dependent drinkers, with 50% of those drinking these ciders drinking more than three litres a day, and the damage these drinks do is widely known.”

Alcohol companies have strongly opposed minimum drink pricing, claiming that wealthy people drink the most and that imposing a minimum price would not impact their drinking at all. But past research suggests otherwise.

Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said evidence from Canada showed that a 10% increase in alcohol prices led to a 32% reduction in alcohol-related deaths. “This evidence tells us two things,” she said. “Firstly, the government must take action on cheap alcohol ... and secondly, the alcohol industry simply cannot be relied upon to act as messengers on public health.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.