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Last Updated: Friday, 19 September, 2003, 10:13 GMT 11:13 UK
Q&A: The costs of alcohol
A government report suggests that the cost of alcohol abuse to the UK economy may be 20 billion a year.

It suggests that binge drinking may be partly to blame for the billions spent by the NHS helping people with alcohol-related illness or injury.

BBC News Online looks at the problem of binge drinking and the solutions suggested by the Cabinet Office report.

What is binge drinking?

Officially, binge drinking is any drinking session which involves the consumption of at least eight units of alcohol, if you are a man, or six, if you are a woman.

The scale and cost of drinking in the UK

Eight units works out roughly equivalent to four pints of normal strength beer, eight units of spirits, or eight small glasses of wine.

It is a fairly arbitrary measure - double the average daily recommended intake of alcohol.

The weekly alcohol limit is 21 units for men, and 14 for women.

But even if you drink far less than this a week, doctors say exceeding the "binge drinking" limit could be bad for your health.

It is a growing issue - drinkers under the age of 16 are drinking on average twice as much today as they did a decade ago.

And in adults, two in five drinking "occasions" for men, and one in five for women, involve drinking in excess of the binge drinking limits.

Why is binge drinking hazardous?

Drinking significant volumes of alcohol in a single session is primarily dangerous because it leads to a greatly increased risk of injury.

This may be an accident, such as simply falling over under the influence of drink, being involved as a pedestrian in a traffic accident, or getting injured as the result of a fight.

However, there is growing evidence that drinking large numbers of alcohol units over a relatively short period is likely to be far worse for your general health than spreading the same alcohol over a whole week, even though consumption is the same.

Alcohol is a poison, and it may be that having high concentrations of it in the body over relatively short periods is worse for you that having lesser levels of it in your system more often.

Repeated instances of binge drinking have been linked to strokes, kidney damage, memory loss and an increased breast cancer risk in women.

I'm a binge drinker: Does that make me an alcoholic?

Not necessarily. There is a big difference between someone who binges on occasion and someone who is dependent on alcohol.

The difference is how you view alcohol. The danger of alcohol dependency should be considered if the very idea of going without a drink fills you with a sense of dread.

While binge drinking may be a habit for many young people in the UK, the vast majority of those people could go a couple of days without a drink if necessary.

Put yourself in a position where you would normally want a drink - and see what happens when you deny yourself.

For instance, go out for the evening and stick to soft drinks.

If you can still enjoy yourself, then there is nothing to worry about, but it you feel tense or distressed then you may have a problem.

What is this drink culture costing our society?

The combined costs of alcohol-related crime and disorder, health problems, lost productivity and domestic break-up have been estimated as approaching 20 billion a year.

There are an estimated 1.2 million incidents of alcohol-related violence, and 85,000 incidents of drink-driving a year.

Drink accounts for one in 26 NHS "bed-days", and up to 17 million working days are lost annually through alcohol abuse.

What is the government doing about binge drinking?

Friday's report is really a "warm-up" for the wider government alcohol strategy which is likely to be published by the end of the year.

Ministers would like us to be more like our continental neighbours - who might drink as much alcohol as us in many cases - but spread it out over the whole week rather than in a single session.

Much of this difference is put down to the more laid-back atmosphere associated with drinking - often accompanying a meal, or at least taken sitting down at a table rather than standing up in a pub.

It is likely to be difficult to change the ingrained UK drinking culture overnight.

There is also concern over drinks promotions and "happy hours" which encourage the swift drinking of often very potent alcoholic drinks.

The whole UK licensing system is under review - its critics say that the 11pm "kicking out time" forces drinkers to cram their evening intake into a far shorter period than they would like, and encourages both men and women to drink quickly against the clock.

So, what is a sensible amount to drink?

Men should not consistently drink more than four units of alcohol a day. For women the sensible limit is three units a day.

Alcohol abuse 'rife and ignored'
12 Jun 03  |  Health

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