Two-thirds of alcohol sales are to heavy drinkers

Posted on: 23rd August 2018

New research reveals the extent of the alcohol industry’s dependence on risky drinking

68% of alcohol industry revenue in England comes from consumers drinking at risky levels, according to a new paper published in the journal Addiction today. If all drinkers were to comply with the Government’s recommended guideline levels, alcohol sales revenue would decline by two-fifths (38%), or £13 billion. These findings demonstrate that much of the alcohol industry has a strong financial incentive to ensure heavy drinking continues, and so raises questions about the appropriateness of the industry’s continued influence on government alcohol policy.

The analysis, carried out by researchers at the Institute of Alcohol Studies and the University of Sheffield’s Alcohol Research Group, shows that:

  • Drinkers consuming more than the Government’s low-risk guideline of 14 units (around one and a half bottles of wine or six pints of beer) per week make up 25% of the population, but provide 68% of industry revenue
  • The 4% of the population drinking at levels identified as ‘harmful’ (over 35 units a week for women, over 50 units a week for men) account for almost a quarter (23%) of alcohol sales revenue

The research also explores the financial importance of heavy drinking to different types of retailers and producers. It finds that a higher proportion of sales in supermarkets and off-licences (81%) than pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants (60%) are to those drinking above guideline levels. It also demonstrates that heavy drinkers generate a greater share of revenue for producers of beer (77%), cider (70%) and wine (66%) than spirits (50%).

Alcohol producers and retailers sometimes claim that moderate drinking is not a threat to their business model because they can encourage drinkers to ‘drink less, but drink better’, and trade up to more expensive drinks. However, the new figures show that the average price of a pint of beer in the pub would have to rise by £2.64, and the average price of a bottle of spirits in supermarkets by £12.25, to maintain current levels of revenue if everybody were to drink within the guideline levels.

The alcohol industry has been a powerful voice in debates over alcohol policy in recent years: persuading the government to maintain a system of self-regulation for marketing and labelling, lobbying forcefully for cuts to alcohol duty and funding a legal challenge to resist the introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol in Scotland. The coalition government’s flagship alcohol policy was the Public Health Responsibility Deal, which depended on voluntary industry commitments to help reduce harmful drinking. This research suggests that there may be a major conflict of interest for industry actors involved in such policy processes between reducing health harms and preserving their market.

Aveek Bhattacharya, Policy Analyst at the Institute of Alcohol Studies, and the lead author of the paper, said:

“Alcohol causes 24,000 deaths and over 1.1 million hospital admissions each year in England, at a cost of £3.5 billion to the NHS. Yet policies to address this harm, like minimum unit pricing and raising alcohol duty, have been resisted at every turn by the alcohol industry. Our analysis suggests this may be because many drinks companies realise that a significant reduction in harmful drinking would be financially ruinous.

The government should recognise just how much the industry has to lose from effective alcohol policies, and be more wary of its attempts to derail meaningful action through lobbying and offers of voluntary partnership. Protecting alcohol industry profits should not be the objective of public policy – previous research has shown that reducing alcohol consumption would not only save lives and benefit the exchequer, but could also boost the economy and create jobs.”

Colin Angus, Research Fellow in the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group at the University of Sheffield, and a co-author on the paper said:

“These figures highlight an important conflict of interest in the UK Government’s approach to reducing alcohol problems. Its decision to work in partnership with the alcohol industry is unlikely to lead to effective policies when heavy drinkers provide a large share of the industry’s revenue.

The scale of price rises required to maintain current levels of revenue cast serious doubt on the alcohol industry’s claims that it supports moderate drinking”

Read the full report here