A government report shows that 17 million working days are lost to hangovers and drink related illness each year. The annual cost to employers is estimated to be �6.4bn while the cost to the National Health Service is around �1.7bn: Around 40% 0f Accident & Emergency admissions are alcohol-related Billions more are spent clearing up alcohol-related crime; there are around 1.2 million incidents of alcohol related violence each year. Additionally alcohol-related problems are responsible for an estimated 22,000 premature deaths each year, a figure thought to be conservative.

Over 90% of British adults drink alcohol, spending over �30bn on alcohol each year. One in three men drink more than they should. One in five woman drink more than they should, and woman in skilled jobs drink more heavily than other woman. (BBC[1])

The new government concern however is not only the amount of alcohol, but also the short durations during which much of it is consumed. A now common term used to describe this high intake of alcohol in a single drinking occasion is “binge drinking”. This is thought to account for 40% of all men’s drinking sessions. (Press Association)

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People who binge drink could be causing rapid damage to their brain cells. Originally it was thought that damage to the brain (Neurodegeneration) was caused not while drunk, but over a longer period when the brain had to cope with alcohol withdrawal. Recent, but unconfirmed research, suggests that degeneration after a couple of days of heavy intoxication might translate to someone who is not a chronic alcohol abuser.

Andrew McNeill, co-director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, told BBC News Online that many people were still unaware of the potential damage of alcohol. ‘People still think that alcohol damage only affects middle-aged people when their liver drops out. The fact that it can also cause brain damage, and that you don’t have to be an alcoholic for this to happen is not something that people fully understand’

Reflecting government concern about the costs to the economy and heath service rung up by heavy drinking, London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, is considering building upon existing voluntary schemes such as “pubwatch”, and limiting ‘happy hours’, requiring more seating to discourage drinking while standing and better bar service to curb the binge-drinking culture. (Meikle)

‘Binge drinking is part of young people’s culture. For a lot of young people there is ignorance about the effects on health.” (Moran) and binge-drinking woman on Wearside are putting their long-term health at risk. Of Sunderland, Dr Judy Thomas, Director of public health said in her annual report 2003, ‘the proportion of adults who drink alcohol above the safe level is among the highest in the country’. The report also highlighted that ‘many young people regularly drink more that the amounts experts say they should have. Binge drinking, where they down large amounts in a short space of time is a particular problem.’ ‘Sunderland kids are also drinking more than most other young people in England. A survey of schools showed that 15% of 12-15 year olds locally had drunk alcohol in the week before. This was more than double the national figure of 7%.’

Binge drinking is far from either a new or British phenomenon. As a northern European country, heavy sessional intake and drinking to get drunk have been an integral part of British drinking culture for generations and are reported at least as far back as the Vikings. (IAS) The major contrast in drinking culture between Mediterranean and Northern Europe is the dominant beverage is wine against beers and spirits. While wine is regarded as part of the diet and so consumed on a regular basis as part of meals and in family settings, there are strong informal sanctions against public drunkenness. In contrast Northern culture is characterised by less frequent but heavier ‘explosive’ patterns, typically around weekends, away from the family setting and as a means to itself – drinking to get drunk.

As such, public drunkenness in not unexpected and sometimes socially accepted and even expected. In Britain drinking developed to being very pub-centred, where predominately men went to drink beer as an activity in its own right, not associated with another activity, tending to be concentrated around evenings and weekends. This bingeing style of consumption was further reinforced by the practice of buying in ’rounds’ that naturally encourages everyone in the group to drink at the speed of the fastest and to drink more than they might otherwise do.

Getting drunk may be an unplanned consequence of a night out, but most often binge drinkers go out with the intention of getting drunk. They report strategies of accelerating the process such as having a few drinks before leaving home, mixing drinks and deliberately drinking quickly and missing a meal to drink on empty stomachs. (IAS) The alcohol industry has also adapted to this market, producing new rages of designer alcohol drinks aimed at a new generation of drinkers. Increasing the strength of alcoholic drinks to compete in the ‘psychoactive’ market, being advertised as such drugs and as lifestyle markers. One of the current fastest growing market segments are the ‘shots’ and ‘shooters’. Short drinks packages and sold as a means of rapid intoxication.

Promotions such as ‘happy hour’ encourage rapid and heavy consumption by offering reduced prices for a short time, often in the earlier part of an evening. Government claims that amending the ‘artificially’ early pub closing will reduce binge drinking, as people will no longer have to beat the clock, seems unrelated to the ‘culture’ and ‘history’ of drinking habits in the UK. It is also notable that in Australia, with a similar drinking culture to the British, extended drinking hours resulted in an increased in binge drinking drunkenness. (IAS) Given the cultural and psychological factors effecting binge drinking, it would also seem questionable whether education into the long-term health problems associated with excessive drinking would have an influence on current drinking habits.


“Binge Drinking”: The perceived reward of gratification

is stronger than the long-term health risks.


Secondary source information was used for the background topic information used in the introduction. Primary source information was desired to provide an answer to the author’s question.

Procedure: For simplicity and the small scale of the project, it was decided to use a questionnaire to gather a few basic facts and an opinion on the question topic. This meant that it could be used as a remote sampling, left to be completed and collected later if there was a time issue. Secondly it could be used administered face to face almost as a structured interview, which was the preferred choice of administration. This overcame any problems of the remote sampling of not knowing who had completed the questionnaire, and ensured a sufficient response rate. It was also considered a viable option given the authors lack of experience in research.

Disadvantages of the method, such as influencing the answers by revealing own views or opinions, or the candidates trying to give a socially acceptable answer, were considered negligible given the choice of people to be used as subjects. (See below) Closed questions with a fixed range of a few answers were chosen to make the results simpler to display and interpret.

People: Convenience sampling of friends and associates was decided upon due to the lack of experience and it was felt that a more honest answer might be given as the nature of their social habits was broadly known. It also reduced any ethical issues about the questions being asked. While it was only conducted upon a small sample, 20 people, a balance of age ranges was attempted. The disadvantage that the sample was small, that they were all of similar education and social background was accepted and included in the discussion of the results. This small project does not purport to represent a sampling of the general public. The questions were considered to be valid in their measure and reliable for the scale of the project.

Materials. The questionnaire developed in a rough draft and sampled on a very small group of college associates. The answers were not included in the results; this sample was to establish the comprehension of the actual questionnaire and was considered adequate without the need of amendment. A final copy was drawn on a desktop publishing program and printed onto both sides of a single sheet of paper. The findings were entered onto a simple spreadsheet program to facilitate graph representations of the findings. The author completed the questionnaire, face-to-face so only a pen and means of supporting the paper (a file) was required.


The results reflect the answers of a small group of twenty people, the age range was broken down into: 18-24 six people, 25-34 eight people, 35+ six people. Gender was referred to on the questionnaire to establish the appropriate recommended maximum alcohol limit, but was not reflected in the results.

Question 1. This simply established age range and was used to divide the results into age brackets for comparison. Due to restrictive word count this was subsequently abandoned in the discussion, it was considered expendable and not pertinent to the initial project question.

Question 2: how often do you drink alcohol?

Question 3: How often do you exceed the recommended amount per session?

With a sampling of 20 people each person’s answer represented 5%.

95% of the sample consumed alcohol. The majority of these, 60% drank either “a couple of times a week” (30%) or “mostly at weekends” (30%). However excess or ‘binge’ drinking was reported to be ‘mostly at weekends’ (45%).

Question 4: Which health problems are you aware are associated with excess drinking of alcohol?

Of the small example of the major health risks associated with excessive alcohol ‘abuse’ listed, liver damage and mental health were equally and commonly known to the sample showing 100% awareness. In contrast cancer was relatively unknown to the sample, completely unknown to the age range 18-24 and 25-34.

Question 5: How likely do you feel being made aware of the [listed] health problems would influence your drinking habits?

Each person in the sample represented 5% of the survey.

75% of the survey did not feel that awareness of health issues would be likely to affect their drinking habits: 45% thought it ‘unlikely’ and 30% ‘not at all’.

No one (0%) felt it definitely would and only 15% thought it possible. Two people (10%) were undecided.


Originally the term ‘binge’ was used in its clinical sense to refer to a periodic bout of continual drinking over a period of days by an alcohol dependant. The term has gained a contemporary use referring to the high intake of alcohol in a single drinking occasion. There is no internationally agreed definition of binge drinking, but UK surveys normally define binge drinking as a single days consumption of alcohol of 6 units for a woman, and 8 units for a man. (IAS) Others however classify it as exceeding a very low consumption, in a single day, of 2-3 units for a woman and 3-4 units for a man. Health risks form drink also range, described as 14 units in a week for a woman and 21 units for a man.

With moderate risk sometimes assessed as 14-35 units for a woman and 20-50 for a man. Further classification can be the consumption of half or more of the ‘safe’ weekly number of units. These inconsistencies of what is a binge session are prevalent throughout most of the research done on the topic. For the purpose of this project, binge is described as consuming half or more of the recommended weekly number of units in a single drinking session; seven for a woman and 10 for a man. Any definition that uses a number of units consumed, as its base factor, does not allow for individual variables. E.g. body weight, alcohol tolerance and speed of consumption. There is no simple correlation between the number of units consumed and a resultant blood alcohol level: a set number of units of alcohol consumed over a whole or part of a day, e.g. at a wedding, is not the same as consuming that number in a couple of hours. However a subjective evaluation, where binge drinking is defined as drinking which results in the subject feeling at least partly drunk, rather than just a measure of units drank, defeats the object of the survey, often, although not always, there is a suggestion that the purpose of the exercise is to get drunk.

The results of this survey suggest that while a similar number of people drink a couple of times a week, as do those who drink only or mostly at weekends, the excess occurs predominately at the weekend. While this may suggest cultural bias as discussed in the introduction, there has been no allowance for the fact that most of the subjects worked or attended full time education so see the weekend as a time when they may ‘let their hair down’. If there were no commitments during the week, the excessive consumption may not have been delayed.

Health risks appeared to be known for liver damage, which is well established in contemporary drama and news. Mental health was also well known but the survey did not distinguish if the views were those long-term mental health problems such as depression, or the loss of ‘brain cells’ familiar to contemporary humour. The same humour which lessens the awareness of the danger of drinking to excess by making it familiar and therefore socially acceptable behaviour.

With two major health risks associated with alcohol abuse clearly already known to the group, it was not surprising to find that the feelings on whether this knowledge would affect their drinking habits was no. However it must be remembered that the survey does not clarify whether the health risks they knew of were associated with excess drinking of alcohol, or drinking alcohol in general.

Discussion, almost unstructured interviews, with some of the subjects was unavoidable due to the close associations with the author. Attention was drawn to areas that had not been included in the questionnaire, but seem worthy of inclusion in this discussion. It was indicated that, unlike the government assumption, it was not ‘happy hour’ or other reduced price incentives which added to binge drinking. People intimated that they drank in ‘favourite’ or currently fashionable bars regardless of price, and many did not offer ‘happy hours’ or price reductions. Secondly it was not so much ‘culture’ that saw them drink so much in so short a space of time. It was largely seen as restricted personal time that forced this situation. Work and family commitments being specifically mentioned. Many were unable to go out midweek and as such a ‘culture’ of meeting up with friends at a weekend had developed. The fact that drinking to excess on these occasions still appeared to be a ‘custom’ and not a requirement was considered, but not voiced, at the time by the author.


‘Binge’ drinking, regardless of its numerous definitions is neither new nor restricted to the UK, but likes may be traced back as far as the Vikings, which may lend weight to its contrast to Mediterranean drinking culture. Government interest in it as a problem would appear to be financially motivated, with much of its reporting focused on the associated costs more than any moral decline. Proposed ‘measures’ seem rather half hearted, proposals for warnings on bottles, altering licensed closing times and putting more of the onus of ‘sensible’ drinking onto the establishments seem weak given the vast figures quoted as concerning. Perhaps what needs to be considered is the number of people who drink alcohol and the popularity of any government who was to interfere with its consumption in any direct and significant manner?

Fortunately to avoid political intrigue the failings of the prohibition movement of early 20th century America give reason to avoid too radical and direct government action. Predominantly the ‘binge’ culture does seem to be more centred around the young, but perhaps the average wage, mortgage payments and other ‘responsible person’ commitments at a later stage in life are the reason for this abstinence, more than any moral or ‘growing up’ attribute. Certainly this report supports the theory that despite knowledge about potential long-term health risks with excessive alcohol indulgence now, the likely effect of this awareness is unlikely to easily change a very long established, and more importantly accepted, drinking culture of ‘drinking to get drunk’ that exists today.


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