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Is Alcohol Abuse Part of Being British?

December 17, 2014

  • Widespread violence after weekend alcohol abuse binges have become a stereotype of British society
  • The UK is not even in the top 20 of the world’s heaviest drinking countries
  • British people have a different attitude towards drinking

The UK has the reputation of a country with an alcohol problem. Widespread violence after weekend alcohol abuse binges have become a stereotype of British society. 

A recent British Council survey showed that 27 per cent of people abroad think that British people “drink too much alcohol”. The survey, titled “As Others See Us”, was based on 5,000 individual interviews with young people in Brazil, China, Germany, India and the US.

However, a recent study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on alcohol consumption around the globe shows something different: the UK is not even in the top 20 of the world’s heaviest drinking countries. According to the WHO report, the average global citizen consumes 6.5 litres of pure alcohol every year. Belarus came top of the list at 17.5 litres a head, Moldova came second (16.8)and Lithuania third (15.4).

The UK was 25th on the list with an average consumption of 11.6 litres, which is less than Portugal where they drink 12.9 litres per year, France and Australia where they knock back 12.2 litres a year and Germany where the figure is 11.8 litres.

The “British problem” is not actually the amount of alcohol being consumed but the fact that it is associated with high levels of antisocial and violent activity. There are plenty of countries where people drink more than in the UK, where drinking isn’t associated with violent behaviour.

Is it the way Brits are “programmed” to drink?

According to the Institute of Alcohol Studies “there is no simple theoretical model that adequately explains the relationship between alcohol and violence. The vast majority of drinking episodes does not lead to violence, and most violence does not involve drinking.”

It’s not that British people have a different chemical reaction to alcohol, but they have a different attitude towards drinking. Social anthropologist Kate Fox says: “the British believe that alcohol is a disinhibitor, and specifically that it makes people amorous or aggressive...Our beliefs about the effects of alcohol act as self-fulfilling prophecies - if you firmly believe and expect that booze will make you aggressive, then it will do exactly that.”

Can people in Britain change their approach to drinking? Can they become more like the more mild-mannered drinking cultures? Most commentators think this is unlikely.“Britain will never have a Mediterranean drinking culture” writes Ed West in the Daily Telegraph. He points out that this has been a problem for centuries: “at no point in history have northern Europeans, and the British in particular, been known to drink sensibly – as far back as the early medieval period, continental observers spoke with horror about the Anglo-Saxons and their hopeless drunkenness.”

A review of several studies about culture and alcoholism found that there is a big gap in our knowledge and more research is needed: “Although European countries are among the world’s highest consumers of alcohol, the literature review showed that very little research has focused on social and cultural aspects of drinking in Europe...There is a clear and urgent need for large-scale systematic research on social and cultural aspects of drinking in Europe, and for continuous monitoring of shifts and changes in mainstream European drinking-cultures.”

Maybe the UK will never become a Mediterranean drinking culture, but maybe it doesn’t need to. But to kill the myth of the drunk British hooligan another myth needs to die: that binge drinking is as British as fish and chips.

Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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