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Last Updated: Friday, 2 September 2005, 09:37 GMT 10:37 UK
'Statistics on alcohol are chilling'
This week Magazine reader Valerie Pegg took issue with the selective use of statistics on alcohol. Here, Andrew McNeill, of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, says you might not like the numbers but don't kid yourself that binge drinking isn't a problem.

Street scene with beer can

To doubt the statistics on the UK's thirst for alcohol is a nonsense.

The idea that the increase in consumption could be celebrating the Millennium is absurd: there has been a long-term increase since the 1950s, and we now drink more than double the amount consumed then.

And many are drinking in the most unhealthy way possible. Binge drinking is integral to the social life of many young Britons. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, only one in four women and one in six men say they never binge.

Among 20-something women, 60% of the alcohol consumed is in bouts of heavy drinking - more than six units a day. For men, half the drinking is done in bouts (more than eight units). Guidelines are set thus, as subjective criteria such as "drinking enough to lose control" would make tracking drinking habits impossible.

Police with a woman drinker
Pubs are set to open longer
The rise in our overall consumption is most noticeable in young women. Yes, this started from a low baseline, but that doesn't mean it's of no consequence.

A Datamonitor report found that UK women under 25 drink more than their European counterparts, and by 2009, it's expected to rise another 31% to three times as much as young women in France and Italy.

Nor does heavy drinking suddenly start at 18. Indeed, UK girls are now even more likely than boys to be bingers - a pattern thought to be without precedent. Teenage bingers are also more likely to take the habit into their 20s, so the comforting idea that it's just a phase may be wishful thinking.

'No fun' brigade?

Some dismiss the public and political concern as unwarranted 'moral panic' - a term suggestive of interfering Puritanism. The motives of those who warn of danger can be dismissed rather more easily than the dangers themselves.

CCTV captures a fight outside a pub
Binge drinking is causing rising levels of alcoholic gastritis, pancreatitis and liver damage, diseases once found in older men.

In all the research into the medical and social consequences, a key finding is that the pattern of consumption matters as much, or more, than the amount.

None of the health benefits of alcohol come from binging. While a glass of red wine may reduce the risk of heart disease, binging increases it.

As for teenagers, no wonder a recent publication aimed at youth, sponsored by the American Medical Association, was subtitled 'Drinking makes you stupid'. Alcohol can damage young brains, with bingeing linked to impaired mental and social development.

Drunk on holiday
Sex and booze on holiday
The social cost, too, is high, with bingeing linked to drug use, crime and anti-social behaviour.

Alcohol is the biggest date rape drug, and much first sex and unprotected sex takes place while drunk. Given that it can damage the reproductive system and the foetus, there are disturbing implications to the popularity of binge drinking in young women.

It is not just that there are problems now; bingeing stores them up for the future.

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