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I drink, therefore I am: A brief look at alcohol dependence in Great Britain

Alcohol dependence is often viewed as a cluster of behavioural, cognitive, and physiological phenomena that in most affected people includes a strong desire to consume alcohol, and have difficulties in controlling their drinking. According to a 2013 report by Alcoholics Anonymous, alcoholism kills more people in the UK than any other drug apart from nicotine. Based on Government statistics, they claim one adult in every 13 is alcohol-dependent (although this is much higher than data collected from the most methodologically robust studies – see below). The General Household Survey (GHS) and the General Lifestyle Survey (GLF) have been measuring drinking behaviour for over 30 years. In relation to alcohol use, the latest 2013 Office for National Statistics (ONS) report notes that:

“The Department of Health estimates that the harmful use of alcohol costs the National Health Service around £2.7bn a year and 7% of all hospital admissions are alcohol related. Drinking can lead to over 40 medical conditions, including cancer, stroke, hypertension, liver disease and heart disease. Reducing the harm caused by alcohol is therefore a priority for the Government and the devolved administrations. Excessive consumption of alcohol is a major preventable cause of premature mortality with alcohol-related deaths accounting for almost 1.5% of all deaths in England and Wales in 2011”.

The ONS notes that obtaining reliable data on drinking behaviour is difficult. Compared to national alcohol sales, surveys carried out by social scientists consistently record lower levels of how much alcohol they consume because participants may consciously and/or unconsciously be underestimating alcohol consumption (e.g., alcohol use in the home may be based on the number of glasses of wine drunk with the amount poured into the glass being much greater than a standard unit of alcohol). In the most recent 2013 report (based on data collected in 2011), participants were asked two questions about their alcohol consumption. These were (i) maximum amount of alcohol drunk on any one day in the previous seven days, and (ii) average weekly alcohol consumption. The survey also obtained three measures of maximum daily alcohol consumption.

  • Exceeding the recommended daily alcohol limit. This measure assessed the proportion of men and women exceeding the recommended units of alcohol on their heaviest drinking day (i.e. 4 units for men, 3 units for women).
  • Engaging in binge drinking (i.e., intoxication). This measure assessed the proportion of men and women who exceeded the number of daily units considered as intoxicating (i.e., 8 units for men, 6 units for women).
  • Engaging in heavy drinking. This measure assessed the proportion of men and women who drank more than three times the recommended daily units of alcohol (i.e., more than 12 units for men and more than 9 units for women).

The results indicated that:

  • Over half of all adults (59%) reported that they had consumed alcohol in the week prior to the survey.
  • Men (66%) were more likely than women (54%) to have had an alcoholic drink in the week before the survey
  • More men (16%) drank on at least five out of seven days than women (9%) in the week prior to the survey.
  • Almost one in ten men (9%) drank alcohol every day in the week prior to the survey compared to only one in twenty women (5%).
  • More men (34%) exceeded the daily recommended units of alcohol than women (28%).
  • More men (18%) were binge alcohol drinkers than women (12%)
  • More men (9%) were heavy drinkers than women (6%)
  • Heavy drinking was most prevalent in those aged 16 to 44 years
  • Drinking alcohol was also associated with smoking nicotine with smokers being more likely to be binge drinkers and heavy drinkers.

Another major report on alcohol use in England was recently published by the Lifestyle Statistics, Health and Social Care Information Centre (in 2013). Their analyses were mainly obtained from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), Hospital Episodes Statistics (HES), and prescribing data. They reported that:

  • 61% of men and 72% of women had either drunk no alcohol in the last week, or had drunk within the recommended levels on the day they drank the most alcohol.
  • 64% of men drank no more than 21 units weekly, and 63% of women drank no more than 14 units weekly.
  • 12% of school pupils had drunk alcohol in the last week. This continues a decline from 26% in 2001, and is at a similar level to 2010, when 13% of pupils reported drinking in the last week.
  • In 2011/12, there were 200,900 admissions to English hospitals where the primary diagnosis was attributable to alcohol consumption (a 1% increase on the previous year).
  • In 2011/12, there were an estimated 1,220,300 admissions to English hospitals related to alcohol consumption where an alcohol-related disease, injury or condition was the primary reason for hospital admission or a secondary diagnosis (an increase of 4% on the previous year).
  • In 2012, there were 178,247 prescription items prescribed for the treatment of alcohol dependence in primary care settings or NHS hospitals and dispensed in the community (an increase of 6% on the previous year).

Arguably the most robust data on alcohol dependence in the UK comes from the 2009 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) carried out by the National Centre for Social Research and University of Leicester. Alcohol problems (including alcohol dependence) were measured using the AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test) and the SADQ-C (Severity of Alcohol Dependence Questionnaire, community version). An AUDIT score of eight or more indicated hazardous drinking, and 16 or more indicated harmful drinking. SADQ-C scores of 4-19 indicated mild dependence; 20-34, moderate dependence; 35 or more, severe dependence.

Using the AUDIT, the prevalence of hazardous drinking was 24.2% (33.2% males, 15.7% females). A total of 3.8% of adults (5.8% males, 1.9% females) drank alcohol at harmful levels, i.e., around 1 in 25 adults. Among males, the highest prevalence of both hazardous and harmful drinking was in 25-34 year olds, whereas in females it was in 16 -24 year olds. Using the SADQ-C, the prevalence of alcohol dependence was 5.9% (8.7% males, 3.3% females), i.e., around 1 in 16 adults. For males, the highest levels of dependence were identified in those between the ages of 25-34 years (16.8%), whereas for females it was between the ages of 16-24 years (9.8%). Most of the recorded dependence levels were mild (5.4%), with relatively few adults showing symptoms of moderate or severe dependence (0.4% and 0.1% respectively). Compared to the previous APMS survey in 2000, the prevalence of alcohol dependence was lower for males in 2007, whereas it remained at a similar level for females.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Lifestyle Statistics, Health and Social Care Information Centre (2013). Statistics on Alcohol: England, 2013. Located at:

National Centre for Social Research/University of Leicester (2009). Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England, 2007: Results of a Household Survey. London: NHS Information Centre

Office for National Statistics (2012). The 2010 General Lifestyle Survey. London: Office for National Statistics.

Office for National Statistics (2013). The 2011 General Lifestyle Survey. London: Office for National Statistics.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

Fat chance: The British ‘obesity epidemic’

Obesity has become a major problem across the Western world including Great Britain. Some academic scholars claim that obesity is a natural consequence of ‘food addiction’. While I can share this viewpoint, there are many examples of obese people whose eating behaviour would not be classed as addicted using the addiction components model. However, that does not mean obesity is not a problem. Academically, I only became interested in obesity when I was appointed a member of the Department of Health’s Expert Working Group on Sedentary Behaviour, Screen Time and Obesity chaired by Professor Stuart Biddle and led to a major report that we published on obesity and sedentary behaviour in 2010 (see ‘Further reading).

Obesity is measured using a calculation based on a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight measurement [in kilograms] by the square of their height [in metres]. In adults, a BMI of 25kg/m2 to 29.9kg/m2 means that person is considered to be overweight, and a BMI of 30kg/m2 or above means that person is considered to be obese. A recent 2013 report by the Health and Social Care Information Centre presented a range of information on obesity in England drawn together from a variety of sources. The report noted that:

“NICE [National Institute for Health and Care Excellence] guidelines on prevention, identification, assessment and management of overweight and obesity highlight their impact on risk factors for developing long-term health problems. It states that the risk of these health problems should be identified using both BMI and waist circumference for those with a BMI less than 35kg/m2. For adults with a BMI of 35kg/m2 or more, risks are assumed to be very high with any waist circumference”.

The main source of the report’s data on the prevalence of overweight and obesity is taken from the annual Health Survey for England (HSE) that is written by NatCen Social Research, and published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC). Most of the information presented in the 2013 report is taken from the HSE 2011.The main findings were that:

  • The proportion of adults with a normal Body Mass Index (BMI) decreased from 41% to 34% among men and from 50% to 39% among women between 1993 and 2011.
  • The proportion that were overweight including obese increased from 58% to 65% in men and from 49% to 58% in women between 1993 and 2011.
  • There was a marked increase in the proportion of adults that were obese from 13% in 1993 to 24% in 2011 for men and from 16% to 26% for women.
  • The proportion of adults with a raised waist circumference increased from 20% to 34% among men and from 26% to 47% among women between 1993 and 2011.
  • In 2011, around three in ten boys and girls (aged 2 to 15) were classed as either overweight or obese (31% and 28% respectively), which is very similar to the 2010 findings (31% for boys and 29% for girls).
  • In 2011/12, around one in ten pupils in Reception class (aged 4-5 years) were classified as obese (9.5%) which compares to around a fifth of pupils in Year 6 (aged 10-11 years) (19.2%).
  • In 2011, obese adults (aged 16 and over) were more likely to have high blood pressure than those in the normal weight group. High blood pressure was recorded in 53% of men and 44% of women in the obese group and in 16% of men and 14% of women in the normal weight group.
  • Over the period 2001/02 to 2011/12 in almost every year more than twice as many females than males were admitted to hospital with a primary diagnosis of obesity.
  • In 2011, there were 0.9 million prescription items dispensed for the treatment of obesity, a 19% decrease on the previous year.

Using regression analysis, the HSE also examined the risk factors associated with being overweight and obese. For both men and women, being ‘most at risk’ was positively associated with: age; being an ex-cigarette smoker; self-perceptions of not eating healthily; not being physically active; and hypertension. Income was also associated with being ‘most at risk’, with a positive association for men and a negative association for women. It was also reported that among women only, moderate alcohol consumption was negatively associated with being ‘most at risk’.

Another summary report on adult weight published earlier this year by the National Obesity Observatory briefly reviewed the scientific data and concluded that in the UK: (i) an estimated 62% of adults (aged 16 and over) are overweight or obese, and that 2.5% have severe obesity; (ii) men and women have a similar prevalence of obesity, but men (41%) are more likely to be overweight than women (33%); (iii) the prevalence of obesity and overweight changes with age, and prevalence of overweight and obesity is lowest in the 16-24 years age group, and generally higher in the older age groups among both men and women; and (iv) women living in more deprived areas have the highest prevalence of obesity and those living in less deprived areas have the lowest, but there is no clear pattern for men.

The 2013 Health and Social Care Information Centre report also contextualized the obesity problem in the UK by comparing obesity rates with other European countries and worldwide using data published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2012, the OECD has published a number of ‘Health at a Glance’ reports including one on European health comparisons, and one on worldwide health comparisons (published in 2011). The data from these reports was summarised as follows:

“More than half (52%) of the adult population in the European Union reported that they were overweight or obese. The obesity rate has doubled over the last twenty years in many European countries and stands at between 7.9% in Romania and 10.3% in Italy to 26.1% in the UK and 28.5% in Hungary. The prevalence of overweight and obesity among adults exceeds 50% in 18 of 27 EU member states…[Worldwide] more than half (50.3%) of the adult population in the OECD reported that they were overweight or obese. The least obese countries were India (2.1%), Indonesia (2.4%) and China (2.9%) and the most obese countries were the US (33.8%), Mexico (30.0%) and New Zealand (26.5%). Obesity prevalence has more than doubled over the past 20 years in Australia and New Zealand. Some 20-24% of adults in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom (UK) and Ireland are obese, about the same rate as in the United States in the early 1990s. Obesity rates in many western European countries have also increased substantially over the past decade. The rapid rise occurred regardless of where levels stood two decades ago. Obesity almost doubled in both the Netherlands and the UK, even though the current rate in the Netherlands is around half that of the UK”.

From an addiction perspective, there’s also some interesting data examining the co-relationship between obesity and drinking alcohol. For instance, a 2012 report by Gatineau and Mathrani examining the relationship between obesity and alcohol consumption reviewed the literature and made a number of conclusions. These were that (i) there is no clear causal relationship between alcohol consumption and obesity, although there are associations between alcohol and obesity and these are heavily influenced by lifestyle, genetic and social factors; (ii) many people are not aware of the calories contained in alcoholic drinks; (iii) the effects of alcohol on body weight may be more pronounced in overweight and obese people; (iv) alcohol consumption can lead to an increase in food intake; (v) heavy, but less frequent drinkers seem to be at higher risk of obesity than moderate, frequent drinkers; (vi) the relationships between obesity and alcohol consumption differ between men and women; (vii) excess body weight and alcohol consumption appear to act together to increase the risk of liver cirrhosis; and (viii) there is emerging evidence of a link between familial risk of alcohol dependency and obesity in women.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Biddle, S., Cavill, N., Ekelund, U., Gorely, T., Griffiths, M.D., Jago, R., et al. (2010). Sedentary Behaviour and Obesity: Review of the Current Scientific Evidence. London: Department of Health/Department For Children, Schools and Families.

Gatineau, M & Mathrani, S. (2012). Obesity and alcohol: An overview. Oxford: National Obesity Observatory.

Health and Social Care Information Centre (2013). Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet: England, 2013. London: Health and Social Care Information Centre.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2011). Health at a Glance 2011. Available at: 05858.pdf

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2012). Health at a Glance: Europe 2012. Available at: nceeurope.htm

National Obesity Observatory (2013). Adult weight. Oxford: National Obesity Observatory.