Alcohol:UK Policy

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Alcohol badge.jpg This article is part of the Spinwatch public health oriented Alcohol Portal project.

Alcohol is a socially accepted and culturally significant commodity in the UK; the 1996 Health Survey for England found only a minority permanently abstained from drinking alcohol, 4% of men and 7% of women. High levels of alcohol consumption, unsurprisingly, result in increased rates of alcohol related harm. In the UK rates of alcohol consumption have risen steadily, with per capita rates of consumption more than doubling between 1950 and 2000.

Alcohol Consumption in the UK 1900-2000, per capita consumption of 100% alcohol [1]

After 2000 consumption rates continued to rise and in 2004 peaked at 9.4 litres of pure alcohol before showing a small decline to 8.9 litres in 2006. [2]

Alcohol Related Harm

Misuse of alcohol costs the NHS around £1.7Bn a year. Binge drinking, in particular in younger age consumers, is seen as a major problem. In the UK 24% repeatedly have more than 5 drinks when they do drink; and a further 25% have between 3-4 drinks in one sitting. [3] In addition to this 'almost half of victims of violent crime believe the offender to be under the influence of alcohol and just over a quarter of all people think that drunk and rowdy behaviour is a problem in their area' [4] Much of this misuse is preventable. [5] However liberalisation of alcohol regulations and the increasing affordability of alcohol have serious undermined UK alcohol control policy.

UK Alcohol Policy

In order to reduce alcohol related harms there is clear evidence that controlling the price and availability of alcohol and restricting marketing and promotion are the most effective measures. [6] Licensing and taxation are part of UK alcohol control alcohol, however, licensing has been dramatically liberalised and according to Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) alcohol has become dramatically more affordable:

“Between 1980 and 2005 the price of alcohol increased by 22% more than prices generally. However because disposable income has increased by :97% in real terms (Between 1980 and 2005), alcohol was 62% more affordable in 2005 than in 1980” [7]

Responsibility for developing and implementing alcohol policy is spread across a range of stakeholders. The Home Office has responsibility for licensing, in England and Wales, for policing and for the 2012 alcohol strategy consultation which considers the merits of a minimum price for alcohol. [8] Scotland has devolved responsibility on most alcohol related issues with the exceptions of labelling, age restrictions, advertising and taxation. The Treasury has responsibility for setting the duty rates applied to alcohol for the whole of the UK, the ministry for justice, Department of Health, Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Department for Work and Pensions are among the twenty government departments with an interest in alcohol policy. Some ministerial departments have an interest in reducing the harm caused by excessive alcohol consumption; while others have an interest in promoting alcohol for economic ends.

Non-Elected Stakeholders

Alcohol advertising regulations are overseen by the Advertising Association and the Portman Group both represent the interests of commercial actors. Increasing the Department of Health has invited stakeholders from the alcohol industry and other commercial sectors to become involved in reducing alcohol related harm. The Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network has become a platform within the health strategy to deal with alcohol related issues. Critics have argued that the Network is skewed in favour of commercial interests and gives little scope for effective action on health. UK alcohol licensing and social disorder policies typically focus on reduction (immediate or short term for example confiscation of alcohol by police), containment or the displacement of alcohol related problems. Priorities include controlling excessive noise, antisocial behaviour, or underage drinking. Containment aims to control the drinking environment for example in the licensing of outdoor beer gardens in pubs and at events that allows authorities to keep a certain degree of control over drinkers. Displacement includes actions such as the introduction of the Alcohol Bylaws that forbid people from drinking in public places. [9].

Discrepancies in datasets

The two main sources of information for UK national alcohol statistics are the Office for National Statistics in the Household Survey and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs excise data. Unfortunately there are vast discrepancies in data gathered on identical subjects between the two sources. [10] In fact alcohol purchases recorded in HM Revenue and customs data are nearly double those in the Office for National Statistics in the Household Survey.[11] There are a plethora of further datasets on alcohol consumption and related health problems. However, determining precision in alcohol statistics is a complicated procedure and often contested by some groups.

In addition there is the problem of differing uses of terminology and the confusion this casts across survey samples. This, of course, subsequently affects the analysis of the data. In addition to this the constant shift of responsibility for recording data with regard to alcohol consumption means that it is almost impossible to see any trends emerging. Despite this, however, some good information does exist.

Related pages


  1. Cancer Research UK, Alcohol Consumption in the UK 1900-2000, per capita consumption of 100 per cent alcohol accessed 10th June 2012
  2. Lesley Smith & David Foxcroft (2009) Drinking in the UK: An exploration of the Trends accessed 10th June 2012
  3. European Commission Website European Commission: Attitudes Towards Alcohol Accessed 24.03.08
  4. Jacqui Smith Safe.Sensible.Social - Alcohol Strategy (keynote speech delivered 20th February 2008)Jacqui Smith Safe.Sensible.Social Accessed 24.03.08
  5. Sir Liam Donaldson Sir Liam Donaldson in Association of Public Health Observatories: Indications of Public Health in English Regions: Alcohol Accessed 24.03.08
  6. Tom Babor (et al 2010) Alcohol No Ordinary Commodity, 2nd edition, Oxford University press, England ISBN 978-0-19-955114-9
  7. SHAAP 2007:11 Alcohol: Price, Policy and Public Health
  8. Home Office Alcohol Strategy 2012 accessed 11th June 2012
  9. Bromley and Nelson Alcohol-Related Crime and Disorder Across Urban Space and Time, Geoforum, Volume 33, Issue 2, May 2002, Pages 239-254 Accessed 18.03.08
  10. Association of Public Health Observatories Website Association of Public Health Observatories: Indications of Public Health in English Regions: Alcohol Accessed 24.03.08
  11. Association of Public Health Observatories Website Association of Public Health Observatories: Indications of Public Health in English Regions: Alcohol (Page 7 Inconsistencies in Datasets) Accessed 24.03.08