Binge Drinking In The UK

Binge drinking is certainly still a concern in the UK.  Us Brits have often had a troubled relationship with alcohol: drinking booze alongside each meal, groups of drunken youths in the streets.  But is binge drinking something new, or has binge drinking always existed and it’s just the name that’s a recent addition to our culture and society?

The history of binge drinking

Binge drinking definitely has a recent history but it has also existed long-term too.  Right back almost as far as we can trace, humans have produced alcohol.  There’s archaeological evidence which shows that even in 10,000 BC the Neolithic humans used to ferment and drink beer. There’s evidence of wine production in China too, from around 7,000 BC.  But, did binge drinking, or drinking to excess, occur then?

When we get to Roman times, we can see that the Romans were quite vocal about the consumption of alcohol. Seneca, a great philosopher, said that being drunk is the equivalent of voluntary madness so we can assume that public drunkenness was something that was frowned upon back in those times.  Pretty much without doubt, we can say that ever since alcohol and its known effects existed, some humans have drunk to excess.  It’s only in modern times that we have a word for it.

What defines binge drinking?

The definition of binge drinking seems to have changed in recent years. A ‘binge’ used to mean that someone drank alcohol heavily for a period of days, rather than hours. Today, binge drinking is most often defined as a single drinking session which leads to drunkenness.

The NHS definition of binge drinking is “Drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time, or drinking to get drunk or feel the effects of alcohol”.  The WHO supports this too, stating alongside the NHS that binge drinking is drinking over six units of alcohol in a single drinking session.  If you put it like this, however, it becomes clear that binge drinking for one person would not necessarily be classed as a binge drinking session for another.  Alcohol toxicity is dependent on someone’s size, their age, and their alcohol history, not to mention the type of drink that they have been consuming.  Still, with this serving as a benchmark for binge drinking, it’s obvious that more of us are classed as binge drinkers than first thought.

According to Drink Aware, a charity which offers facts and advice about drinking alcohol, states that one 175ml glass of wine can contain 2-3 units of alcohol.  This means that if you have a second glass then you could be classed as a binge drinker according to the NHS and WHO. In a similar vein, one and a half pints of lager can contain up to four units of alcohol. If you have a few beers, that’s over the six units, making you a binge drinker.

We can’t deny the fact that wine glasses in particular, and therefore the measure of wine within them, have been growing recently.  Sharing a bottle of wine with a friend can often mean that you only need to pour once! This is where binge drinking can often come in.  A drinker may think that they’ve only had one glass of wine, but in reality, it’s a lot more than they think.   This is particularly prevalent in the home when people frequently underestimate just how much alcohol they have consumed.

Binge drinking and age

Binge drinking seems particularly prevalent amongst the younger generations and media headlines and images around this topic often feature on the tabloid front pages. It has almost become normalised by some parts of today’s society in the UK.  Some experts have labelled the “ladette culture” as being responsible for some British teens reaching for the booze on a frequent basis.  Indeed, there has been a significant increase in young adults in their 20s and 30s being diagnosed with liver disease due to their early relationship with alcohol.

If we look at 15 year-olds in the UK, 44% of girls and 39% of boys said that they had been drunk on more than one occasion. This is most certainly a worrying trend.

Why is binge drinking so dangerous?

The risks of excessive alcohol consumption are well-known in the UK.  Many people wrongly presume that binge drinking on occasion means that they are not at risk from alcohol-related problems as they are not particularly dependent on drinking.  However, this would be an incorrect assumption.  Just because someone isn’t dependent on alcohol and can go a few weeks without drinking it, doesn’t mean that their regular binge drinking sessions do not put them at risk.

Binge drinkers are at particular risk of accidents and injuries.  There are many stories that could be told here.  Indeed, there have even been TV documentaries that are centred around ambulance crews and medics that are specifically placed in towns and cities to deal with the fall out of binge drinkers, rather than have them fill up local A&E departments.  Drinking to excess in a short space of time brings with it an increased risk of death. You only have to scour the past headlines to see that university students are often at risk of falling into rivers or losing their way due to their binge drinking sessions.

Alcohol also gives you that sense of confidence that is unfounded, meaning that the binge drinker is much more likely to take significant risks, such as driving a car or having unprotected sex. All of these things increase the risk to life and to health.

How does the UK compare with other countries?

Unfortunately, the UK has become renowned for its binge drinking culture. In fact, according to recent research, we come second in the table of 21 European countries and their binge drinking (the Portuguese pipped us to the post).  The researchers found that people from Britain, Ireland and Portugal drink the most, with that increasing according to how wealthy the individual is.   But, it’s also clear from the data that whilst the richer may drink more generally, binge drinking is definitely more prevalent among the lower social classes.  These statistics, alongside others, have been declared a national tragedy by experts.  Britain needs to get a hold on its binge-drinking culture before it’s too late.