Alcohol - Health Committee Contents

2  History

From the seventeenth century to the middle of the twentieth

13. Striking images of drunkenness such as Hogarth's "Gin Lane" have encouraged a widespread belief that the English have always been a nation of drunks. To examine the truth of such beliefs we sought written and oral evidence from a number of historians of alcohol.[11] Their evidence shows that far from being a story of perpetual drunkenness, English drinking habits fluctuated widely around a long term trend which was downward to the mid 20th century before the extraordinary increase in consumption over the last 50 years. Dr Nicholls told us that:

      It is important to bear in mind that in Britain drinking has had peaks but it has also
      had troughs; it has had some very low troughs. My personal concern about this is
      that if we overstate the idea that the British just like to drink that may have a negative
      consequence in the sense that it reinforces a certain expectation.[12]

Figure 1: Estimated per capita consumption 1800-1935[13]

Source: G. Wilson, Alcohol and the Nation

14. The historians who gave evidence to us differed slightly in their emphasis but essentially presented the same picture which is summarised in the box below. We were told that there was a long decline in alcohol consumption from the late 17th century with a blip in the first half of the 18th century associated with the gin craze. Levels rose again in the mid-nineteenth century but fell rapidly and significantly later in the century. They reached low levels in the inter-war years and remained low until the 1960s. The last thirty or forty years have seen a significant shift in these long-term trends, not just because consumption levels are rising again, but because of the growing popularity of stronger drinks (wine and spirits).

History of alcohol consumption
1550-1650: commercialisation of domestic brewing industry; tobacco a commodity of mass consumption and an accompaniment to drinking; increased market for French wines—higher per head until present day [14]

1650-1750: the period 'when Europeans took to soft drugs', including coffee, tea and chocolate; the intermittent gin craze from the 1730s to the 1750s masks a stabilisation or decline in alcohol consumption over the period.[15] Beer was promoted by many anti-gin campaigners as the patriotic (and sober) alternative to gin. Despite this, beer consumption fell significantly throughout the 18th century, largely due to the increasing popularity of tea, coffee and chocolate .[16]

1750 to 1850: fall in alcohol consumption up to about 1840, particularly wine, increase in tea, which replaced beer as the popular staple of every day consumption.[17]

1850 to late 19th century: large increase in consumption; the 'consumption of beer, wine and spirits all peaked around 1875. The consumption of tea also grew'. These trends were associated with rising living standards.[18]

Late 19th century to mid-20th century: decline in consumption per head—associated with temperance movement, alternative leisure activities, including public parks and libraries.[19]

Mid-20th century onwards: increase in consumption from 3.5 litres per head to 9.5 (with slight falls in the early 1990s and 2005 onwards)

15. Like the myth that the English have always been drunk, the contrast between English drunkenness and civilised Mediterranean habits may also be something of a myth. While there is a good deal of literature in the past complaining about binge-drinking, the historians pointed out that little is known about the origins of the modern Mediterranean approach to drinking and it is therefore difficult to say how far back the contrast can be taken.[20]

16. Within the overall trends, different groups in Great Britain had very different drinking patterns. People in the countryside drank less than those in towns. Some groups were teetotal. According to the historian, James Kneale, it is not particularly helpful to talk of a 'British attitude to drinking', as there have always been large geographical variations in alcohol consumption:

there has been considerable geographical variation as well as a good deal of historical change. As noted above… Across the UK urban dwellers tended to consume more alcohol than their rural counterparts, and areas dominated by trades like mining and dock work also recorded higher levels. In 1900 the average per capita expenditure on alcoholic drink was estimated to be £4 10s 4d a year; the average dock worker was thought to spend 8s 4½d on drink every week…, nearly five times as much as the average figure for the country.[21]

17. We asked the historians about the causes of changes in consumption. They pointed to two main groups of, sometimes contradictory, factors:

  • Economics: the affordability of alcohol and the liberalness of the licensing regime have clearly had an impact on consumption: for example, the 18th century gin craze was linked to the Government's encouragement of gin production and restriction of brandy imports; the rise in consumption in the 19th century was associated with rising living standards. On the other hand, Government can bring about significant reductions in consumption:
    • the First World War, which marks a significant moment because of the Government's efforts to control alcohol production and consumption—the most sustained attempt to come to grips with drink in British history. Measures included shorter opening hours, higher duties on beer, and significant reductions in both the production and strength of beer. The amount of beer consumed in 1918 was nearly half of the pre-war total, despite rising incomes, and arrests for drunkenness in England and Wales fell from 190,000 to 29,000 between 1913 and 1918.[22].
  • Culture: some changes in culture have been encouraged by changes in affordability and availability, but at other times, changes in culture have nullified increases in affordability; Kneale observes the decline in drinking in the late 19th century:

By the 1880s there were many counter-attractions for working-class consumers (music halls, football, cigarettes, and holidays); this decline seems to be a question of changing tastes.[23]

He adds that in the inter-war years

While the Depression undoubtedly kept demand low in some areas, the majority of workers saw real wages increase between the wars. However, spending on alcohol did not increase, because drink had many rivals now: radios and gramophones, gardening, cinema and the pools.[24]

From the 1960s to the present day

18. Over the last half century there has been a massive increase in drinking, not just because consumption levels are rising again, but because of the growing popularity of stronger drinks, in particular wine and spirits and more recently strong white cider. As graph one shows, we now drink about three times more per head than in the years of lowest consumption.

Figure 1 - per capita alcohol consumption in the UK (litres of pure alcohol)

Source: Statistical handbook 2007 (British Beer and Pub Association, 2007)

19. The changes of the last half century have been associated by witnesses with the factors listed below, which are the same as the factors which influenced drinking in the past, ie. economics (affordability and availability) and changes in culture. They are discussed in more detail in the chapters below.

20. Affordability is a key influence on alcohol consumption and alcohol has become more affordable because of rising incomes, the failure of duty, notably the duty on spirits, to rise in step even with general inflation (let alone incomes) and aggressive promotions and discounts, particularly by supermarkets competing for business. It has been estimated that between 1980 and 2007 alcohol became 69.4% more affordable, relative to household incomes.[25] Alcohol has become more available because of the huge growth in the number of supermarkets which sell alcohol, an increasingly liberal regime for off-licence sales and a more liberal on-licence regime. There has also been a change in fashion over the last 40 years; as we have seen, in the 1940s young people preferred milk bars and coffee bars to pubs. These issues are discussed in more detail in the chapters below. [26]

21. We received a good deal of evidence about who drinks what. According to the Department of Health 10 million adults drink more than the recommended limits.[27] These 10 million drink 75% of all alcohol consumed in the country. 2.6 million adults (8% of men and 6% of women) drink above the higher-risk levels, ie more than double the Government's guidelines (6 units for women, 8 units for men daily), drinking a third of all alcohol consumed in the country.[28] Data on alcohol consumption from the latest General Household Survey showed that over a third of adults (37%) exceed the recommended maximum alcohol guidelines on their heaviest drinking day of the week.[29]

22. One of the biggest change in the last 50 years has been in the drinking habits of women and young people:

Whatever their social and cultural standing—i.e. Ugandan 'youths', medieval knights, the Victorian urban 'poor'; 20th century 'post-modernists', 16th century 'wits', Somali village elders—drinking, especially to excess, has been a masculine preserve. What is striking about current trends in Britain is that women are now engaging in many of the same drinking practices as men, and consuming similar if not more amounts of alcohol in the process.[30]

Teenagers drink twice as much as they did in 1990;[31] The following figure shows the sharp rises in consumption:

Figure 2 - mean alcohol consumption (units) in the last week, by sex in pupils aged 11 to 15, England, 1990-2006

Source: Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England in 2006: headline figures (Information Centre for Health and Social Care, National Centre for Social Research, National Foundation for Educational Research, 2007)

23. Professor Plant, who has been involved in surveys of 15 and 16 year olds across Europe from Greenland to Russia., told us that British teenagers

have consistently reported very high levels of periodic heavy drinking, very high levels of intoxication, they also report exceptionally positive views of what their expectations are going to be about when they go out to drink

In the latest survey UK teenagers reported 'high levels binge drinking, intoxication and alcohol-related individual, relationship, sexual and delinquency problems', ranking third just after Bulgaria and the Isle of Man.[32]

24. The drinking habits of young people of university age is widely commented on. During the course of our inquiry, our attention was drawn to reports of student "binge drinking", particularly during the annual "Freshers' Week" in September. The most high profile of these reports featured the trial of one inebriated student that had urinated on a war memorial, while taking part in a commercially-organised student event. As a result of this and other controversies, we invited written evidence from university representatives and student events promoters.

25. The National Union of Students[33] argued that "students' unions are some of the most responsible retailers of alcohol". However, it accepted that unions needed to maintain alcohol sales in order to fund student services, and that this had led to drinks promotions and consequently binge drinking and anti-social behaviour in some cases.[34] Universities UK[35] insisted that universities "did not have a duty of care for their students" but it recognised that they had a "significant interest in their welfare". It accepted that there is "clearly a problem in some parts of the country with aggressive external promoters targeting young people".[36]

26. Varsity Leisure Group Limited is the owner of the "Carnage UK" brand which has become, unfairly or otherwise, a notorious example of a promoter of nightclub events for students. Despite the brand name, Varsity Leisure Group told us that "Carnage UK events are based around collective identity, meeting new people and having fun". It stressed that there were no offers on alcoholic drinks at its events, and soft drinks are provided to students free of charge. Nevertheless, the organisation concluded that "students are being immersed into a culture which is focussed around the culture of alcohol. The culture may need to change; the offering of cheap drinks promotions and alcohol-led events may need to be addressed".[37]

27. According to HM Revenue and Customs data, since 2004 when consumption peaked, there has been a slight decrease in alcohol consumption in terms of litres of pure alcohol. UK per capita consumption rose by 27% between 1995 and 2004, but then until 2007 fell by 3%. There has not been a clear and consistent pattern of falling consumption since 2003 as shown in the figure below. It is unclear whether the recent fall in consumption represents a watershed or is merely a temporary phenomenon. There was also a dip in the early 1990s.

Figure 3: Consumption of pure alcohol

Source: Data from BPA handbook but based on HM Revenue and Customs data[38]

28. The Portman group and industry representatives state that 29% of the male population drank more than 21 units a week in 2000, but that the figure was 23% in 2006.[39] On the other hand, the latest ONS figures show that hazardous drinking had in fact increased between 2000-2008 from 24% to 28% in men, and from 15% to 17% in women.[40] The BMA has urged caution in interpreting the recent figures as reflecting a real long-term change in drinking habits:

It is important to note that it is not yet possible to determine whether these recent trends in alcohol consumption are genuine long-term changes in drinking habits. It may be that there is an increased tendency to under-report consumption due to the recent extensive publicity about binge drinking and the dangers of heavy consumption. Data from future years will provide a clearer indication of any long-term trends.[41]

Conclusions and recommendations

29. The history of the consumption of alcohol over the last 500 years has been one of fluctuations, of peaks and troughs. From the late 17th century to the mid-19th the trend was for consumption per head to decline despite brief periods of increased consumption such as the gin craze. From the mid- to the late 19th century there was a sharp increase in consumption which was followed by a long and steep decline in consumption until the mid 20th century.

30. The variations in consumption are associated both with changes in affordability and availability, but also changes in taste. Alternative drinks such as tea and alternative pastimes affected consumption. Different groups drank very different amounts. Government has played a significant role both positive and negative, for example in reducing consumption in the First World War as well as in stimulating the 18th century gin craze by encouraging the consumption of cheap gin instead of French brandy.

31. From the 1960s consumption rose again. At its lowest levels in the 1930s and -40s annual per capita consumption was about 3 litres of pure alcohol; by 2005 it was over 9 litres. These changes are, as in past centuries, associated with changing fashion and an increase in affordability, availability and expenditure on marketing. Just as Government policy played a part in encouraging the gin craze, successive Government policies have played a part in encouraging the increase in alcohol consumption over the last 50 years. Currently over 10 million adults drink more than the recommended limits. These people drink 75% of all the alcohol consumed. 2.6 million adults drink more than twice the recommended limits. The alcohol industry emphasises that these figures represent a minority of the population; health professionals stress that they are a very large number of people who are putting themselves at risk. We share these concerns.

32. One of the biggest changes over the last 60 years has been in the drinking habits of young people, including students. While individual cases of student drunkenness are regrettable and cannot be condoned, we consider that their actions are quite clearly a product of the society and culture to which they belong. The National Union of Students and the universities themselves appear to recognise the existence of a student binge drinking culture, but all too often their approach appears much too passive and tolerant. We recommend that universities take a much more active role in discouraging irresponsible drinking amongst students. They should ensure that students are not subjected to marketing activity that promotes dangerous binge drinking. The first step must be for universities to acknowledge that they do indeed have a most important moral "duty of care" to their students, and for them to take this duty far more seriously than they do at present.

33. Since 2004 there has been a slight fall in total consumption but it is unclear whether this represents a watershed or a temporary blip as in the early 1990s.

34. We now turn to look at how much of a problem the levels of drinking described in this chapter are. What health risks are people running in drinking over the recommended limit or even double the limit?

11   The historians were Dr James Kneale, UCL, Dr Angela McShane, V and A Museum, Dr James Nicholls, Bath spa University, Dr Phil Withington, University of Cambridge. Back

12   Q 67 Back

13   AL 59 Back

14   AL 57 Back

15   AL 57 Back

16   AL 59 Back

17   AL 57, AL 59 Back

18   AL 57 Back

19   Q 72 Back

20   Q 66 Back

21   AL 55 Back

22   AL 55 Back

23   AL 55 Back

24   AL 55 Back

25   AL 59 Back

26   Q 26 Back

27   AL 01 Back

28   AL 01 Back

29 Back

30   AL 57 Back

31   Q 85 Back

32   Q 81 Back

33   The national body representing 600 affiliated students' unions across the UK. Back

34   AL 82 Back

35   The representative organisation for the heads of universities. Back

36   AL 83 Back

37   AL 64 Back

38   The e-mail was sent from the BPA to our adviser, Dr Nick Sheron by Mark Hastings. Back

39   AL 35 Back

40   ONS, Drinking: adults' behaviour and knowledge in 2008, Opinions (Omnibus) Survey Report No. 39, 2009, table 2.1. Back

41   BMA, Alcohol misuse: tackling the UK epidemic. February 2008. Back

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