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More action urged to curb drinking

Published 12/05/2015

The alcohol-drinking habits of the nation have been revealed in new research
The alcohol-drinking habits of the nation have been revealed in new research

The heaviest drinking 20% of the population of England drinks nearly two-thirds (63%) of the country's intake of alcohol, according to a new report.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) comparison of 40 countries put the UK as the 11th heaviest drinking nation.

While the average consumption of pure alcohol per person was 9.5 litres in 2011, in the UK it was 10.6 litres.

Alcohol consumption in the UK has also risen over the 20 years studied in the report, bucking the general trend of decline.

Several southern and central European countries, such as Italy, France and Germany, where consumption had traditionally been very high, have experienced dramatic falls in average alcohol consumption. But it has increased significantly in several northern European countries including Estonia, Norway and Poland, and emerging economies like India, China and Brazil.

The OECD's first major report on harmful drinking and its impact on public health said alcohol has an impact on more than 200 diseases and types of injuries, and f our out of five drinkers would see an improvement to their health if they consumed just one unit less a week.

It also found that young people are starting to drink at an increasingly younger age in the UK, with t he proportion of 15-year-olds who have tried drinking alcohol increasing from 71% in 2002 to 75% in 2010.

Two in five ( 40%) girls of that age also admitted they had been drunk at least twice.

Other findings included large socio-economic disparities in drinking rates, with those who are educated to a high level more likely to drink to "hazardous" levels than those who are not.

Professional women were found to be particularly heavy consumers - but this was not replicated in most other countries.

The study authors suggested this could be down to more women working in traditionally male dominated jobs, and joining in with the macho drinking culture.

The report said that compared with other OECD countries, the UK has relatively high levels of taxation for alcoholic drinks and has adopted a wide-range of policies to regulate the sale and promotion of alcohol products.

But they said plenty more could be done, such as including introducing minimum unit pricing, enforcing clear labelling and banning drinks companies from sponsoring sport, as has happened in France.

"I think it should consider them," OECD head of health, Mark Pearson, said.

"I think the evidence shows that these work. I think that if they're well designed there are some opportunities there that the UK/England could be doing more."

But he added there is a "dilemma" in tackling harmful drinking and also affecting people who drink sensibly.

"Why should they suffer just because somebody else is consuming too much," he added.

"That, as I say, is something that is very difficult for us to give an economic answer to. That really then is down to governments to decide whether it's worth it.

"This really is large amounts of money involved for the economy, in terms of loss productivity, health spending, and accidents and ill health, so I think it does clearly make sense to us that this is the sort of area that any country that cares about its economic performance has to take seriously."

A spokesman for the Portman Group, which represents alcohol producers, said official statistics had showed significant declines in underage and binge drinking.

The latest figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on alcohol found that m ore than one-fifth (21%) of adults have now cut booze from their diets - up from 19% in 2005 - while the amount of binge drinkers fell from 18% to 15%.

"However, the report rightly recommends that alcohol policy should target harmful drinkers first and that open dialogue and co-operation with alcohol producers and retailers is part of an effective policy approach in tackling alcohol harms," the spokesman added.

"In the UK, such partnerships have resulted in significant achievements, including taking a billion units of alcohol out of the market and labelling 80% of products with important health information, and over 90% with a warning about drinking when pregnant."

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