The Health Select Committee Report says, “The last 50 years have seen several important changes in the sale of alcohol which have led to a great increase in binge drinking with all its harmful consequences.”
Every newspaper report on binge drinking refers to it as an “increasing” or “soaring” problem. If we were to commission a poll, I’m pretty sure the majority of the population would agree with the Select Committee Report when they refer to binge drinking as “a growing problem”.
Except it’s wrong to say binge drinking is increasing. Who says? Only the people who compile the data on binge drinking, that’s who.
(i) Unit consumption calculation has changed over time
The only way to estimate how much people are drinking is to ask them. The government recommended definition of a binge is more than twice the recommended daily consumption on any one day in the last week. Official figures for drinking are gathered as part of the General Household Survey – they ask how many beers or glasses of wine you’ve had, and work out your unit consumption from that.
Of course, if you ask people, they might well underestimate, so in 2006 the GHS recalculated the unit amount of what people claim they drink. Now, I don’t have a problem with this at all – over the last two decades we’ve started drinking more premium lager and premium ale, wine is becoming stronger on average, and when we say a ‘glass’ of wine we’re increasingly talking about a 250ml glass rather than a 175ml glass. I’ve looked in detail at how the calculation of unit consumption was revised, and I don’t have a problem with it.
The problem comes from the fact that the new calculation was not backdated. 2006 onwards is calculated in an entirely different way from years up to 2006. This means you cannot make comparisons over time. Of course, the calculation led to a one-off jump in claimed alcohol consumption if you look at it on a graph. But the Office of National Statistics – who did the calculation – says “It should be noted, however, that changing the way in which alcohol consumption estimates are derived does not in itself reflect a real change in drinking among the adult population.” Their words. Not mine.
Without the recalculation, there is a general downward trend.
The biggest leap in alcohol consumption is among older women – just as the ONS said it would be – because they’re most likely to drink the drinks that have been most affected by the change in methodology – glasses of wine.
So, to summarise: there’s not that much evidence of a surge in binge drinking rates. And where there is such evidence, according to the people who compile the statistics, it’s probably due to a change in methodology – not an increase in actual drinking.
(ii) Even ignoring that, there’s no evidence of a significant increase!
Data only goes up to 2006/7. It’s too early to see if the increase from 2006 to 2007 on overall figures is part of a trend or not – but even so, 25% versus 22% in 1998 is not much of an increase. And when we break the figures down by age, we see some interesting stuff:
16-24 year old drinkers are widely acknowledged to be the biggest problem group of binge drinkers. They’re the people we always see in any illustration of binge drinking, the people who are allegedly turning out town centres into no go areas for normal people, the villains starring in every episode of Bravo’s Binge Britain and every tabloid depiction of town centre carnage.
In this age group, even if we ignore the advice of the people who compile the figures and do a comparison over time anyway, binge drinking has fallen significantly over the decade.