Britain, a nation fond of a tipple too many

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BRITONS ARE not the biggest drinkers - that distinction is held by the citizens of Luxembourg - but they are among the biggest binge-drinkers and it is drinking to get drunk that causes the greatest harm.

A glass or two of beer, or wine taken each evening will, for most people, improve their mood, enhance a meal and benefit the heart. Moderate drinking on this scale reduces the risk of a heart attack by more than 30 per cent in men over 45 and increases longevity compared with drinking no alcohol at all.

The problems arise when the daily allowance is taken in one or two sessions at the weekend. For young people in particular, drunkenness is more dangerous than drink. Drunkenness increases the risk of accidents and violence, the main causes of death in young men, and young adults are the heaviest drinkers.

The age at which young people start to drink unsupervised is more important than the age at which they first try alcohol. At 12 to 13 they are using alcohol to experience the adult world and to satisfy their curiosity. By the age of 14 and 15 they are testing their limits, experimenting with losing control and having fun. At 16 and 17 they are anxious to be seen to drink more like adults and want to appear sophisticated.

Drunkenness offences peak at the age of 19 and at every age are higher in men than in women. Much advertising is aimed at young people and "happy hours" and promotions are geared to making them drink more. The Royal College of Physicians noted in its 1995 report, Alcohol and the Young, that drink caused 10 times as much damage as drugs.

A survey by the Health Education Authority last year found that a million men and 190,000 women said they got drunk at least once a week - and those were the ones who admitted it. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, four out of ten young men said they downed the equivalent of four or more pints at least once a week - enough to put the average man's blood alcohol level at least 50 per cent over the drink-driving limit.

More than one-quarter of young women said they downed three pints or their equivalent at least once a week.

As the HEA noted, binge-drinking causes accidents, injuries, blackouts, memory loss, alcohol poisoning, violence, crime, sickness, hangovers and behaviour that gives cause for regret. Drink is a factor in one in four hospital admissions for men, a quarter of accidents at work and one in six accidents on the road.

Drinking above the recommended limits - four units (half a pint of beer or equivalent) a day for men, three for women - is the commonest cause of high blood pressure, increases the risk of stroke and heart disease and is linked with two out of three suicides. There are 33,000 deaths each year linked to alcohol.

There is one ray of light among these gloomy statistics. For most people, both men and women, the heavy drinking associated with the teenage years does not persist into adulthood. With the demands of jobs, partners, children and the rent or mortgage, people tend to moderate their drinking. They learn to drink for enjoyment, not oblivion.

Alcohol: the hard facts

1.4 million men and 500,000 women are drinking at very risky levels - more than 50 units (each unit being half a pint of beer or equivalent) a week for men and 35 units for women.

One in 25 people in Britain is dependent on alcohol.

Among 11- to 15-year-olds the proportion who drink more than once a week has risen from 13 per cent in 1988 to 20 per cent in 1996.

Two-thirds of murders involve either a victim or an assailant who has been drinking.

Alcohol is a factor in four out of ten incidents of domestic violence and one-third of child abuse cases.

Drinking causes 3 per cent of all cancers - mainly of the mouth and gullet.

Death from liver disease is 10 times more common in heavy drinkers than in non-drinkers.

Alcohol problems cost the NHS an estimated pounds 150m a year.

Drinking is responsible for the loss of 14 million working days a year.

But the situation is worse across the Channel. Europe's heaviest drinkers are the people of Luxembourg, who consume 12.6 litres of pure alcohol per head per year. They are followed by the Germans at 12.1 litres and the French at 11.5. Britain comes way down the table at 7.2 litres.