Problem drinkers account for most of alcohol industry's sales, figures reveal
Exclusive: Firms claim to support responsible drinking, yet data shows those who consume at risky or harmful levels account for 60% of sales in England
New year mayhem in Manchester in an image that went viral. The drinks industry is accused of relying on excessive consumption to boost its profits. Photograph: Joel Goodman/LNP
The alcohol industry makes most of its money – an estimated £23.7bn in sales in England alone – from people whose drinking is destroying or risking their health, say experts who accuse the industry of irresponsible pricing and marketing.
While the industry points to the fact that most people in the country are moderate drinkers, 60% of alcohol sales are either to those who are risking their health, or those – labelled harmful drinkers – who are doing themselves potentially lethal damage, figures seen by the Guardian show.
Work by Prof Nick Sheron of Southampton University, co-founder of the Alcohol Health Alliance of more than 40 concerned organisations and colleagues, has established that people who drink dangerously are the industry’s best customers.
“We looked at data from the Health Survey for England and did some calculations on that and we found that in terms of the total alcohol consumed within that survey, 69% was consumed by hazardous and harmful drinkers together,” he said.
Of the 69%, he said, 38% was consumed by “hazardous” or “increasing risk” drinkers who exceed the old guidelines of 14 units a week for women and 21 for men (these have recently come down to 14 units each, with some alcohol-free days), either by bingeing or regular drinking. The rest was consumed by harmful drinkers on more than 50 units a week for men or 35 for women, whose addiction might lead to liver problems including cirrhosis. Public Health England estimates that 10.8 million people drink at risky levels and 1.6 million may have some level of dependence on alcohol.
More than 1m hospital admissions a year are related to alcohol, double the number 10 years ago. According to Public Health England, in 2013-14, alcohol cost the NHS £3.5bn.
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Harmful drinkers drink so heavily that it is claimed that for many, their habit would be unaffordable if they could not obtain cheap alcohol. In a paper last year, Sheron and colleagues revealed male patients in a liver unit consumed a mean of 146 units a week and female drinkers 142 units. They bought cheap alcohol, at a median price of 33p per unit, whereas low-risk drinkers spent £1.10 per unit. Strong cider such as Frosty Jack’s, made by Aston Manor Cider in Birmingham, is sold in three-litre bottles in outlets such as Iceland at just 15p per unit.
A recent report from Australia found similar drinking patterns. The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education revealed the industry’s best customers were the 3.8 million Australians who consume more than four standard drinks a day, double the national guidelines. They are 20% of over-14s but drink 74.2% of all alcohol consumed. The industry calls them “super consumers”.
Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: “It comes as no surprise to learn the drinks industry relies on excessive consumption of alcohol to boost its profits. Why else would alcohol producers spend millions of pounds on advertising each year encouraging people to drink more, and fund heavyweight lobbyists to fight against public policies designed to tackle harmful drinking?
“This evidence tells us two things. Firstly, the government must take action on cheap alcohol … and secondly, the alcohol industry simply cannot be relied upon to act as messengers on public health.”
Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: “There’s no doubt that the drinks industry depends on excessive drinking to drive its profits. Drinks like high-strength white ciders are preferentially consumed by heavy and dependent drinkers, with 50% of those drinking these ciders drinking more than three litres a day, and the damage these drinks do is widely known.
“Importantly, minimum unit pricing would target the highest strength drinks which cause the most harm, leaving the price of lower strength drinks relatively untouched. With minimum unit pricing [MUP], moderate drinkers would barely notice the difference.”
Gerard Hastings, professor of social marketing at Stirling University, said the data “throws into relief the conflict of interest between industry and public health. Industry is driven by the need to sell as much as it possibly can. Ultimately the marketing department rules the waves.”
However, Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said: “The WSTA opposes MUP because – even if it were legal – it would disproportionately impact responsible drinkers, as well as those on the lowest incomes. Statistics show that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to drink – and the more you are likely to drink: 15% of people have drunk more than six to eight units in the last week, but this is 23% of the highest earners and 10% of the lowest.”
The Scotch Whisky Association, which led opposition to minimum unit pricing in Scotland, also claims wealthier people drink the hardest. Evidence shows, said its chief executive, David Frost, “that most hazardous and harmful drinkers are among the wealthier parts of the population, are the least sensitive to price and do not tend to opt for the cheapest alcohol. Therefore they are largely unaffected by minimum unit pricing.”
The Institute of Alcohol Studies disputes this, referring to its own report on alcohol and health inequalities. Brown said evidence from Canada showed that a 10% increase in alcohol prices led to a 32% reduction in alcohol-related deaths.
“This is a clear indicator that raising the price of the cheapest alcohol can have significant public health benefits,” said Brown. “With alcohol costing UK society £21bn each year, we can’t afford to keep stacking our supermarket shelves with pocket-money priced drinks.”
Gordon Johncox, managing director of Aston Manor Cider, said it did not recognise the 15p a unit price for a £3.50 three-litre bottle of Frosty Jack’s. “We typically see the price between £4.50 and £5.00 and in recent years we have consistently increased our prices into wholesalers and retailers,” he said. Because companies did not set the retail price, they “cannot control instances of sales to people that are under-age or already intoxicated or recognised as a problem drinker”, he said.
The Portman Group said that as a regulator of alcohol marketing, it could not comment on price, but a spokesman added: “The official statistics show that during the last decade there have been significant declines in binge drinking (down 20%), alcohol-related crime (down 34%), underage drinking (down 36%) and drink driving (down 47%) and drinks companies have contributed to this through a programme of voluntary measures designed to tackle alcohol misuse.
“These actions have been welcomed by government and leading charities and the industry will continue to work alongside public and third sector partners to drive down alcohol-related harms further.”
The Republic of Moldova, just to the east of Romania, has a population of around 3.55 million. Per capita, the average Moldovan drinks 18.2 liters of alcohol per year. What are they drinking? Your average beer and wine, but also lots of divin, which is Moldovan cognac.
Which Country In The World Consumes The Most Alcohol Per Year? (MAP)
The Huffington Post 02/05/2014
As we head toward the Olympics, and countries around the world pit their most advanced and talented athletes against each other for a chance at greatness, we have a different contest on our mind. Namely, which country in the world consumes the most alcohol?
If we had to guess who tops the list of world alcohol consumption, we would have failed miserably. Think it's the US? Not even close. The UK? Getting warmer. Russia? Close, but no cigar. Let us show this to you in map form, so that you can really appreciate the differences.
|For an interactive version of this map go HERE via chartsbin.com|
The winner for drunkest country on earth? That would be Moldova.