Alcohol consumption in Ireland
Alcohol use is a leading cause of death and disability worldwide and has been identified as one of the ten leading risk factors for the burden of disease. Alcohol use is associated with numerous harmful health and social consequences, including an increased risk of a range of cancers, stroke and liver cirrhosis. Alcohol also contributes to death and disability through accidents and injuries, assault, violence, homicide and suicide.
Alcohol is a modifiable risk factor and reductions in alcohol consumption would lead to an associated reduction in the burden of disease.
In this research bank, you can find the latest national and international data relating to alcohol consumption in Ireland.
COVID-19 brought about a sudden and dramatic change to the daily routines of billions of people across the world. In March 2020, residents across Ireland were required to stay at home and observe both physical and social distancing during a period of initial lockdown and continue to be required to follow public health guidance due to the ongoing pandemic. Researchers noted at the onset of COVID-19 that the way we drink and the harms we experience from alcohol consumption are set to change. Furthermore, there was concern that the potential social and health harms associated with home drinking may be intensified in the context of restrictions on movement outside the home.
COVID-19 has been found to impact on drinking behaviours as documented in a recent detailed analysis of the drinking practices of adults in households with children during the ongoing pandemic hence reference to both pre-COVID-19 and available COVID-19 data will be outlined over the following sections.
Adult per capita alcohol consumption in Ireland
The most recent data available shows that in Ireland, total per capita (15+) alcohol consumption in litres of pure alcohol was 12.75 litres in 2019. This includes both recorded and unrecorded per capita consumption from 2016-2018, which together provides a more accurate estimate of the level of alcohol use in a country and as a result, illustrates trends in alcohol consumption in a more precise way. The WHO predicts that total per capita (15+) consumption would reach 13.5 litres in 2020 and 13.9 litres in 2025 in Ireland. In 2010, this same figure was 12.3 litres.
In terms of recorded per capita (15+) alcohol consumption by type of alcoholic beverage, the most recent figures from 2019 show that in Ireland this totalled 10.91 litres: encompassing 4.92 litres of beer, 2.88 litres of wine, 2.29 litres of spirits and 0.82 litres of other alcoholic beverages. This corresponds to 40 bottles of vodka or 113 bottles of wine or 436 pints of beer. Recorded consumption was 19% higher than the stated aim of the Irish Government to reduce per captia alcohol consumption in Ireland to 9.1 litres by 2020. Unrecorded per capita (15+) alcohol consumption in Ireland accounted for 1.4 litres in 2019.
Data released by the Revenue in March 2021 on alcohol excise receipts and volumes shows that recorded consumption in Ireland decreased 6.5% to 10.1 litres per capita in 2020 compared to 10.8 litres in 2019 in Ireland despite licenced premises being closed for much of 2020. Beer consumption decreased by 17% and cider by 12%, with the majority of beer and cider consumed in on-trade settings that remained closed/limited opening during this period. However, wine consumption increased by 12% during the same period and spirits consumption reported a marginal increase of 0.7%.
During the COVID‑19 pandemic, people have significantly changed drinking habits, shifting places of consumption from bars and restaurants to home. However, there is evidence available to suggest that at-home drinking was the norm for many Irish adults pre-COVID-19 with 62% of drinking occasions taking place in the home setting. Drinking at home was viewed as convenient, comfortable and easy. It was clearly an established, acceptable and attractive new norm among Irish adults. Unknowingly, many were also consuming more than intended when drinking at home due to their misunderstandings and gaps in knowledge on binge drinking.
According to the OECD (2019), recorded alcohol consumption is defined as ‘annual sales of pure alcohol in litres per person aged 15 years and over’ (production, import, export, and sales or taxation data). A cut-off of 15 years is used to more accurately reflect consumption of alcohol, given that those under 15 for the most part do not drink. The WHO states that unrecorded alcohol consumption refers to ‘alcohol which is not taxed and is outside the usual system of governmental control such as home or informally produced alcohol (legal or illegal), smuggled alcohol, surrogate alcohol (which is alcohol not intended for human consumption), or alcohol obtained through cross-border shopping (which is recorded in a different jurisdiction)’. Therefore, it is not accounted for in official statistics.
Defining per capita alcohol consumption
Total per capita alcohol consumption is defined as the total (sum of recorded per capita consumption three-year average and unrecorded per capita consumption) amount of alcohol consumed per adult (15+ years) over a calendar year, in litres of pure alcohol. In circumstances in which the number of tourists per year is at least the number of inhabitants, tourist consumption is also considered and is deducted from the country’s recorded per capita figures.
How is alcohol consumption data collated?
A number of key monitoring surveys are available that are crucial for both measuring and tracking of alcohol consumption. In Ireland, alcohol consumption is calculated using the alcohol sales figures provided by the Revenue Commissioners and population figures provided by the Central Statistics Office (CSO). The Revenue Commissioners provide alcohol sales figures for each beverage type (beer, spirits, wine and cider) and where excise duty has been paid. Population figures are based on census data that is collected every five years by the CSO and are then estimated for intervening years.
However, revenue data do not account for home-brewed alcohol or alcohol consumed in Ireland that may have been bought outside the Republic of Ireland, including cross-border alcohol sales. Per capita consumption figures also do not account for alcohol consumed by Irish people while abroad and alcohol consumed by visitors to Ireland is not subtracted from Revenue figures. Per capita consumption figures may therefore be likely to be an underestimation of the true amount of alcohol consumed by Irish adults.
Per capita consumption also includes those who abstain from alcohol, as this rate is based on all adults aged 15 years+ in Ireland. Therefore, when abstainers are excluded from survey data, alcohol consumption among those who have consumed alcohol in the past year is likely to increase. For instance, the most recent figures available from 2016 for drinkers only per capita consumption in Ireland are 14.5 litres.
Levels of consumption/recorded alcohol per capita consumption are then used to facilitate reporting to the EU, OECD and WHO. For instance, the Global Information System on Alcohol and Health (GISAH) is an essential tool for assessing and monitoring the health situation and trends related to alcohol consumption, alcohol-related harm, and policy responses in countries. Much of the data collected via GISAH is freely available to access through the World Health Organisation’s Global Health Observatory Data Repository. The Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health (WHO 2018) presents a comprehensive picture of alcohol consumption and harms in relation to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Ireland’s consumption in relation to other countries
The OECD Report Health at a Glance: Europe 2020: State of Health in the EU Cycle provides further international comparisons on alcohol consumption. An overview of Irelands’ consumption (10.1 litres) in relation to other OECD countries with most up to date annual sales of pure alcohol in litres per person aged 15+ is available to view from the OECD. The OECD average recorded per capita consumption is 9.1 litres per adult and estimated at 6.2 litres worldwide.
Over the past decade, alcohol consumption has decreased in most EU countries. In Ireland, per-capita consumption is greater than across the European region. In 2019 the Global total per capita consumption average was 5.8 litres, while the total per capita consumption average for Europe was 9.5 litres. Global alcohol consumption of 5.8 litres, represents a 5% relative decrease from 6.1 litres in 2010
Limitations of consumption data comparisons
The methodology to convert alcohol drinks to pure alcohol may differ across countries. For instance, Ireland’s per capita consumption (11 litres per capita 15 years and over, using only recorded figures) is ninth highest among 44 OECD countries. The highest level of per capita consumption was recorded in Lithuania (12.l), followed by Austria (11.l), France 11.7 litres, Czech Republic (11.6l), Luxembourg (11.3l), Latvia (11.l), Russia (11.1l) and Hungary (11.1l). The lowest level of per capita consumption recorded was in Indonesia (0.3l), while 9.7 litres per capita consumption was recorded in the UK.
Recent research that examined alcohol exposure between 1990 and 2014 as well as predicting forecasts until 2030 has found that trends in alcohol use have varied in different parts of the world. For example, the WHO report that alcohol consumption has declined in many European countries, as first reported in western European countries and more recently in eastern European countries such as Russia. However, alcohol consumption has increased in some Asian countries such as India, Vietnam and China.
Patterns of alcohol consumption in Ireland
While overall per capita consumption helps to assess long-term trends, it does not identify sub-populations at risk from harmful drinking patterns. The relationship between per capita consumption and harm is modified by the number of drinkers in a population and by the way alcohol is consumed. National population survey data may be used to determine alcohol use patterns and in Ireland this survey data included the Healthy Ireland Survey data.
There are important variations in levels of consumption across countries, within the same county and across different population groups. It is important to consider drinking patterns across population groups to identify those who drink the most and are most at risk of alcohol-related disorders.
However, it is important to note the limitations of national population surveys used to estimate self-reported alcohol consumption such as difficulties in recall, social desirability bias and undersampling of heavy drinkers. Survey data may be compared against duty clearances or sales data to help overcome some of these limitations.
Current drinkers (consumption in past year/month)
- WHO Global Observatory Data Repository found that the proportion of adults (15+ years) who have consumed any alcohol during the past 12 months was 81.3% in 2016.
- Healthy Ireland 2018 identified that overall, 75% of the population (sample age 15+) consumed alcohol in the past 12 months.
- In terms of COVID-19 data, 73% of Irish adults report having consumed alcohol in the past 30 days (during the initial lockdown period April 2020). This is line with those reported in the initial CSO Social Impact of COVID-19 Survey that found 80.6% of respondents stating that they consumed alcohol in April 2020.
Weekly drinking in Ireland
- Pre-COVID-19, the Healthy Ireland Survey 2018 found that over half (55%) of drinkers drinking at least once a week.
- Pre-COVID 19, the Drinkaware Index 2019 found that 44% of Irish adults (aged +18) reported drinking alcohol at least once a week. Within the drinking population specifically, the weekly drinker is in the majority (at 57%). From an age perspective, at 50% the 35-49-year-olds were most prone to weekly consumption, followed by under 25s, 46% of whom drink on a weekly basis.
- Weekly consumption patterns during the initial lockdown phase of COVID-19 rose to 52% among Irish adults and with some notable changes identified compared with pre-COVID-19. For instance, weekly consumption peaks among 65+year-olds at 57% and the younger adult cohort 18-24-year-olds are least likely to report consuming alcohol on at least a weekly basis in the past 30 days (38%). Peaks in weekly consumption were also identified among pre-family (56%) & pre-school (58%) life stages with both slightly higher than the national average in 2020.
- During the initial lockdown phase of the pandemic, a dramatic drop in frequency of drinking among young adults (18-24 years) was reported compared with pre-COVID levels (38% of young adults were drinking weekly, the lowest of all age cohorts and below the national average of 52%). In 2019 46% of young adults reported drinking on a weekly basis, the second highest of all age cohorts just behind those aged 35 – 49. The 18-24-year age cohort were the largest group of adults in the Barometer 2020 that reported not drinking at all during the initial lockdown phase (17%).
Quantity of alcohol consumed
- One quarter (25%) of respondents reported drinking one-two standard drinks per typical drinking occasion over the past year in Healthy Ireland 2018.
- When those, who in last 30 days had drank alcohol, were asked how many standard drinks were consumed on a typical day during the initial lockdown phase in Ireland, the mean (average) reported was 3.64.
Consumption comparison by gender
- Men are more likely than women to drink at increasing and higher risk levels. According to the latest WHO Global Health Repository Data 2019, total per capita (15+) consumption (in litres of pure alcohol) in Ireland for both sexes was 12.7l, with a male value of 19.4l and female value of 6.3l.
- However, when accounting for drinkers only, the latest total alcohol per capita (15+) consumption in Ireland in 2016 male value was 21l, female 7.3l and both sexes was 14.5l.
- In comparison with EU figures, total APC for female drinkers only across the EU was 7.7 litres and 21.9 litres for male drinkers only. For both sexes among drinkers only, the figure was 15.7 litres (WHO, 2019).
- Across the EU, the total per capita (15+) consumption (in litres of pure alcohol) with 95%CI was male value 18.3 litres, female value of 4.7 litres and 11.3l total. This means that the average level of drinking reported in Europe was nearly four-fold higher in men.
- COVID-19 data collated as part of Barometer 2020 found a higher incidence of weekly consumption among men (57%) compared with women (48%).
Irish household spend on alcohol
- According to Eurostat, households in Ireland spent 2.1% of their total consumption expenditure on alcoholic beverages in 2019. Across the EU, households spent €117 billion on alcohol beverages, representing 1.6% of their total consumption expenditure and equivalent to 0.8% of EU GDP. Among EU member states, the share of total consumption expenditure spent on alcoholic beverages was highest in 3 Baltic states: Latvia (4.8%), Estonia (4.7%) and Lithuania (3.7%). In contrast, the figure was below 1% in Greece and Italy (each 0.9%).
- The most recent CSO Household Budget Survey 2015-2016 found that the average weekly household expenditure on alcohol and tobacco was €28, while the average spend on ‘drink consumed at home’ was €10.56.
Changes in alcohol consumption and COVID-19
- International data shows that COVID-19 has had a mixed impact on alcohol consumption with a higher share of the population increasing their alcohol consumption and frequency of drinking during the initial lockdown. At the same time, however, a slightly higher share of the population reported a decrease in binge drinking. For instance, across 11 countries, 43% of people reported that they drank more frequently; 25% said less frequently and 32% reported no change. This is important as people changed the place of consumption with alcohol sales in on-license premises (bars, restaurants etc) plummeting, while off-premises sales and in particular online sales growing significantly during lockdown.
- A study of 21 European countries found that Ireland was one of only two where alcohol consumption has not declined during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Despite restrictions, among drinkers who reported that their alcohol use had changed, more reported an increase in consumption than a decrease in Ireland.
- In Ireland, 25% of Irish adults in Barometer 2020 reported that they were drinking more during the initial lockdown phase, while 25% said that they were drinking less. One-third of pre-school and pre-teen family households say they are drinking more in the past 30 days (highest reported across life stages and higher than national average).
- These findings are in line with and expand on, other Irish COVID-19 research conducted by the CSO that found households with children reported the highest proportion across all household composition in an increase in alcohol consumption at 27.3% during the initial lockdown phase.
- Overall, there was a higher incidence of women that reported consuming more alcohol during the initial lockdown phase versus men (28% and 22% respectively).
- In terms of pre-COVID-19 data, the Drinkaware Index (2019) also found that a consistent 1 in 4 Irish adults were drinking less when compared with their levels of drinking two years ago – 24% reported drinking less, 53% about the same and 6% more.
- Some notable changes to young adults (18-24-year-olds) consumption patterns were reported during the initial lockdown phase in Ireland as documented in sections above and below. For example, while there was a dramatic drop in weekly consumption among young adults during the initial lockdown phase, binge drinking remained high. However, nearly one in five 18-24-year-olds reported not drinking at all. Almost a quarter of young adults (24%) reported an increase in their personal drinking during the initial lockdown phase in line with the national average reported (25%). Figures released as part of the CSO COVID-19 Social Impact Survey series identifies that the proportion of young adults (18-34 years) who increased their consumption of alcohol has decreased as the pandemic evolved during 2020. Further to this, the percentage of 18-34-year-olds who decreased their alcohol consumption increased from 22.9% in April 2020 to 35.5% in November 2020. In data gathered as part of the Growing Up in Ireland: special COVID-19 survey, 60% of 22-year-olds reported that they were drinking less than usual which balanced with those drinking more than usual.
Prevalence of hazardous drinking in Ireland
A standard drink is a measure of alcohol. In Ireland, one standard drink contains 10 grams of pure alcohol. Heavy episodic drinking is defined as the proportion of adult drinkers (aged 15 and older) who have had at least 60 grams or more (6+ standard drinks) of pure alcohol on at least one occasion in the past 30 days. This is also referred to as binge or excessive drinking. Alcohol is disproportionately consumed by a minority of people who drink heavily making up 4%-14% of the population, depending on the country, but they consume between one third and a half of all alcohol consumed, according to analysis of six OECD countries. Across OECD countries, on average 30% of adults engage in binge drinking at least once a month. The Drinkaware Index (2019) revealed complacent and complicit over-consumption of alcohol among Irish adults with 74% believing that drinking to excess is “just a part of Irish culture”.
According to the Healthy Ireland Survey 2018 over 7 in 10 adults aged 15+ (70%) reported binge drinking at least once in the previous 12 months. 37% of drinkers report that they drink six or more standard drinks (binge drinking) on a typical occasion. 22% of drinkers were found to binge drink at least once a week, and 39% do so at least one a month. However, just 4.9% of those that reported binge drinking on a typical drinking occasion classified themselves as a heavy drinker, while more than one-third (36%) of these drinkers classified themselves as a light drinker or light drinker who sometimes binges. While young people drank less frequently than those in older age groups, they reported drinking more on drinking occasions. Of 15-24 years, over half (54.3%) reported consuming 6 or more standard drinks on a typical drinking occasion. More than one quarter of 15-24 years (27.1%) reported drinking 9 or more drinks per typical drinking occasion.
In terms of COVID-19 data, fewer young adults than other age cohorts may have been drinking weekly during the initial lockdown phase, but were the highest group for binge drinking (in last 30 days) but also the lowest frequent binge drinkers during the initial lockdown phase. Over one-half of 18-24-year-olds reported binge drinking during lockdown (55%), higher than the national average of 46%. However, in terms of frequency of binge drinking during lockdown, young adults were less likely to report binge drinking 2-3 times, and 4 or more times, in the previous 30 days when compared with other age cohorts. The frequency of binge drinking reported by young adults during lockdown was similar to 65+ age cohort. There is therefore a dramatic change in frequency of binge drinking among 18-24-year-olds when pre-COVID data is taken into consideration. For instance, the Drinkaware Index (2019) adults aged under 25 reported engaging in a substantial amount of binge drinking at 28 times in the past year, which was higher than any other age group and well above the national average of 16. Other Irish research serves to corroborate these trends. In one study of Trinity College Dublin health science students, 71% of respondents met the criteria for binge drinking. The same trend was previously documented in the Irish Health Survey (2019) where the 15 – 24 age group reported the highest levels for drinking 6 or more units of alcohol in one sitting at least once a month, with 48% of this group reporting doing so.
When asked to recall the number of occasions in the previous year that they had six or more standard drinks on a single occasion, Irish drinkers reported an average of 16 occasions (Drinkaware, 2019).
Drinkaware Index data showed that close to one in five (19%) Irish drinkers report consumption of six or more standard drinks on a typical day of drinking i.e. exceeding binge drinking levels. The Drinkaware Index also provides data on hazardous consumption among younger adults, finding that 34% of under 25s consume six-plus standard drinks on a single occasion each week – the highest percentage among any age group and almost double the 18% of 25-34-year-olds consuming at that level on a weekly basis.
On COVID-19 data from Barometer 2020, over 1 in 5 (15%) Irish drinkers report binge drinking (6 or more standard drinks) at least once a week in the past 30 days. Men are most likely to report typically binge drinking during the initial lockdown with 27% doing so, compared with 13% of women. Pre-school households reported the highest levels of binge drinking across households with children at 21%. While the national average for levels of binge drinking reported during the initial lockdown above may be lower than pre-COVID-19, we know from other research that Irish adults do not associate binge drinking with at-home drinking even if they are unknowingly doing so while at home. Therefore, with the closure of all licensed premises such as pubs, nightclubs and restaurants as a consequence of physical and social distancing measures, Irish adults may believe that there are less opportunities for them to partake in binge drinking.
Data from the Healthy Ireland Survey 2016 used in reporting the WHO Status Report 2019 shows that pre-COVID-19 in 2016, 37.8% of the total population in Ireland aged 15+years reported consumption of at least 60 grams or more of pure alcohol on at least one occasion in the past 30 days i.e. heavy episodic drinking. This figure is higher than the EU average for heavy episodic drinking (30.4%). When drinkers only (15+years) in the total population were accounted for, the same figure rose to 46.5% in 2016.
Hazardous drinking may also occur where consumption exceeds the recommended HSE weekly low-risk alcohol guidelines (17 standard drinks for men and 11 standard drinks for women, spread across the week with at least 2 drink free days) but harm may not yet have been experienced. In other words, drinking in a hazardous manner means that although they have not yet experienced harm, the person is likely to in the future. It is also possible to drink hazardously by binge drinking (six or more standard drinks in one sitting), even if the guidelines are adhered to. The AUDIT tool, developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) (Babor et al 2001), is used to measure an individual’s level of risk and/or harm in relation to their alcohol consumption patterns. The AUDIT-C was completed in the Barometer 2020 based on consumption in the last 30 days. It is a modified, three question version of the AUDIT instrument used to provide a measure of consumption only. A score of less than 5 indicates lower risk drinking and scores of 5+ AUDIT-C positive, a classification that indicates a propensity to increasing, or hazardous, drinking. Alongside pre-family households, over half of families with pre-school children were more likely to score 5+, higher than other households with children as well as the national figure. Higher mean scores were also reported for pre-families (and followed by pre-school households) thus acknowledging that these households are more likely to be in the hazardous drinking group (and also binge drinking) than other family households.
Pre-COVID-19 research also examined hazardous consumption through application of the AUDIT-C. For example, in the Drinkaware Index (2019) the AUDIT establishes that, among Irish adults who drink, 21% exhibit alcohol-related behaviours that are hazardous and of increasing risk (Zone 2). A further 4% are in the harmful/higher risk and possible dependence cohorts, Zones 3 and 4. The AUDIT also located 75% of Irish drinkers, in Zone 1, defined as low risk. However, applying this additional test to the initial low risk category, Zone 1, reveals that 31% of drinkers in this group can be defined as AUDIT-C positive, a classification that indicates a propensity to increasing, or hazardous, drinking. This refines the findings in relation to the overall drinking population, dividing the low-risk group into two more distinct groupings: Zone 1: low risk and Zone 1 (AUDIT-C positive): potential risk (Drinkaware 2019). Other research conducted by HRB found that 73% of men and 41% of women met the criteria for hazardous drinking using the AUDIT-C. In this study, almost one half of drinkers had a hazardous or harmful pattern of drinking; 38% engaged in monthly risky single occasion drinking (RSOD) and 10.5% met Diagnostic and Statistical Manual version IV (DSMIV) criteria for alcohol dependence (Mongan et al 2020). The second Irish Health Survey (2019) also found that more men (37%) than women (28%) reported drinking 6 or more units of alcohol in one sitting at least once a month.
Gender and binge drinking comparisons
Men are more likely than women to binge drink and on a more regular basis, with 55.7% of men in Ireland (aged 15+years) reporting heavy episodic drinking in the last 30 days vs 20.2% of women (Healthy Ireland 2018). In addition, these figures are higher than EU averages of 47.4% for men and 14.4% for women.
Other notable Irish research found hazardous alcohol consumption reported by 51.1% of the population, 31.5% of women and 69.8% of men (total sample n=1075).
The Drinkaware Index (2019) also provides important data on binge drinking in terms of gender, revealing that men in Ireland, particularly under-34s, are exhibiting consistent hazardous drinking patterns. On average, Irish men who drink, binge drink almost twice a month – 22 times in a year – versus women who do so 10 times a year. Of Irish men who drink, one-in-four (26%) binge drink on a weekly basis, compared to 10% of women.
Alcohol-related harm and hazardous drinking
Alcohol-related harm and the level of risk is determined not only by the volume of alcohol consumed but also by the pattern of the drinker and occasions of high-volume drinking such as heavy episodic (or binge) drinking (HED). 24% of adults in Ireland who drink believe they are likely to experience future health problems if they continue to drink at their current levels
Recent research conducted by the Health Research Board in Ireland has found that majority of alcohol consumption and related harms in the Irish population are accounted for by low- and moderate-risk drinkers (i.e. drinkers who were not dependent on alcohol), and specifically by those who engage in heavy episodic drinking. Together, monthly and occasional HED drinkers accounted for 62% of all drinkers, consumed 70% of alcohol and accounted for 59% of alcohol-related harms.
In addition, 54% of drinkers who also smoke, binge on a typical drinking occasion, compared with 33% of non-smokers who drink (Healthy Ireland Survey 2018). The survey also found that 8% of drinkers have failed to do what was normally expected from them in the past 12 months because of drinking.
Problem alcohol use in Ireland
The prevalence of alcohol use disorders is 8.5% in Ireland vs WHO European region 8.8% and alcohol dependence of 3.8% in Ireland vs WHO European region 3.7% as recorded in 2016. However, gender differences in terms of prevalence are apparent with alcohol use disorders accounting for 13% of males and 4.1% of females, while alcohol dependence break down was 5.8% for males and 1.8% for females.
The Health Research Board provides data on treated problem alcohol use in Ireland through data taken from the National Drug Treatment Reporting System. Some notable key trends are evident between 2014-2020. The total number of cases treated for problem alcohol use in Ireland in 2020 was 5,824. The median age of treated cases was 41 years and 16 years was the median age reported of cases first starting to drink. Almost two-thirds of cases in 2020 were male (62%). Over half (52%) of new cases classified as alcohol dependent in 2020, compared to 53.2% in 2014. In addition, the proportion of previously treated cases classified as alcohol dependent increased from 66.6% in 2014 to 72.1% in 2020. Polydrug use was reported by 23% of cases in 2020, accounting for more than one-fifth of those treated for problem alcohol use.
Alcohol abstinence in Ireland
Rates of abstaining from alcohol in Ireland are relatively consistent across numerous studies conducted during different years. WHO Global Health Observatory data shows that the proportion of adults (aged 15+) who have not consumed any alcohol during the past 12 months, assessed a given point in time, was 18.7% in Ireland in 2016 (10.5% male, 26.9% female). The percentage of lifetime abstainers in Ireland in 2016 was 7.4% (3.5% male, 11.2% female). While there were 11.4% former drinkers in 2016 (7% male, 15.7% female). 13% of Irish adults in the 2020 Barometer report that they never drink alcohol.
Data from the Drinkaware Index (2019) found that 23% of adults (18+) never consume alcohol. While high levels of binge drinking among under-25s were reported, 23% of this age group also reported that they do not consume alcohol at all. This corroborates the 25% who reported not consuming alcohol in the 12 months prior to the Healthy Ireland Survey 2018. Women (28.3%) were more likely to abstain from alcohol than men (22.2%) across all age groups. The highest proportion of abstainers was in 65 years+ followed by younger age group (15-24 years) (37.7% women and 30.3% men of this age group). Note that Healthy Ireland includes respondents aged 15-17, who may be less likely to consume alcohol compared with the rest of the adult population hence may help explain the higher rate of abstinence among the young adult population.
Data on abstention in the WHO European region identified 59.9% current drinkers, 6.6% former drinkers and 23.5% lifetime abstainers in 2016.
The HRB notes that it is likely that patterns of drinking and heavy alcohol consumption may be more problematic in Ireland compared with other countries with similar per capita consumption due to our high number of abstainers.
Alcohol consumption among under 18s in Ireland
Alcohol use among young people has been identified as a global health priority by the WHO Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful use of Alcohol. One in 5 adolescents (15 years) have experienced being drunk across 27 OECD countries. The Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) Study is an international study, commissioned by the Department of Health in Ireland and carried out by the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway with a Trends Report of findings 1998-2018 published in 2021. The 2018 findings report a decrease in alcohol consumption among teenagers overall, with an increase of 6% of children reporting not having an alcoholic drink and 4% decrease in children reporting being drunk. For instance, 64% of children report that they have never had an alcoholic drink vs 58% in 2014. 17% of children report having had an alcoholic drink in the last 30 days vs 20% in 2014. Similarly, 17% of children reported having been ‘really drunk’ (21% in 2014).
Underage alcohol use in the home
This research study also provides data on the ease at which young people get alcohol with the most common source of alcohol among 12-17 years olds coming from a parent, guardian or friend, while the most common location for alcohol consumption being someone else’s home or their own (54%). Findings from a three-year independent evaluation of Drinkaware’s Alcohol Education Programme conducted by Maynooth University corroborate this data. For instance, 57% of 3rd year students had first consumed alcohol either in their own or someone else’s home, most saying they did so with little difficulty whilst only 1 in 4 said they got into trouble with parents for drinking. In addition, over four out of ten (44%) 3rd year students cited tolerant parental views regarding alcohol.
Age of first drink and habits over time
In terms of ‘age of first drink’, the Drinkaware Index (2019) identified that the average at which respondents have tried alcohol for the first time is 15.5 years, with no statistical significance evident between male and female drinkers. Over-55s reported an average age of 16 when they first tried alcohol, while the average age of under-25s when they had their first drink was 14.3 years.
According to HBSC 2018 findings, 81.9% of school children in Ireland have consumed their first alcoholic drink by the age of 17 years.
Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) is a significant national longitudinal study of children in Ireland. Analysing alcohol consumption habits over time, the findings indicate that 15% of 13-year-olds stated that they had ever consumed alcohol, but that figure increased markedly to 89% by the age of 17/18. At 17/18 years, 77% of all young adults drank alcohol once per week or less, while just over 5% drank alcohol more than once per week.
My World Survey is a comprehensive research study examining youth mental health in Ireland. Findings from My World Survey 2 identify a clear link between harmful and hazardous levels of alcohol consumption and psychological distress among adolescents.
Alcohol consumption among older people in Ireland
Older people have historically tended to drink less than younger age groups. However, the incidence of weekly consumption peaks among senior age group at 57%, while the 65+year age cohort reported the lowest incidence of typically binge drinking in the past 30 days across age cohorts at 13% (Barometer 2020 Research paper). Harmful use of alcohol is an under-reported problem among older people, particularly men, with 40.4% of males aged 65+ years engaged in monthly HED according to Healthy Ireland 2016 findings.
The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), a large-scale, nationally representative, longitudinal study on aging with more than 8,500 participants aged 50 years and over, has collected data on alcohol. 1.8% of older Irish adults reported a diagnosed history of alcohol or substance abuse and the rate was highest in men aged 65–74 years (3.9%). The overall prevalence of ‘problem drinking’ (defined as a CAGE score of 3 or more) was higher at 4.8%).
More recent research published by the TILDA team focusing on evidence across the three waves, found that men and women drank more frequently over time, with frequency decreasing with age for women. Average weekly consumption decreased over time and with increasing age. Transitions in self-rated health, particularly those reflecting poorer health, were associated with lower frequency and weekly consumption. Heavy episodic drinking decreased with age. Men who were retired across all waves were more likely to engage in heavy episodic drinking at baseline.
Health inequalities and alcohol consumption in Ireland
Significant inequalities exist in patterns of consumption among certain population groups.
Lower socio-economic groups (SES) experience higher levels of alcohol harm than more socially advantaged groups with the same level of consumption, with higher rates of alcohol-related morbidity and mortality in lower SES groups. This is also known as the ‘alcohol harm paradox’.
Individuals with a lower socio-economic status (SES) are more negatively affected by the effects of alcohol, while adolescents with lower SES have been found to experience significantly higher patterns of heavy episodic drinking.
This is despite data from the Irish Health Survey 2019 reporting that affluent persons report higher prevalence levels of alcohol consumption than disadvantaged persons, with 83% of Very affluent persons reporting that they drink alcohol compared to 70% of Very disadvantaged persons.
COVID-19 data from 2020 Barometer also found that weekly consumption was higher among higher socio-economic groups (56%) vs lower socio-economic groups (49%) during the initial lockdown phase. However, higher socio-economic groups were more likely to indicate any binge drinking with other half doing so (50%) vs 43% lower socio-economic groups.
In addition, adults aged 18+ in lower socio-economic groups are more likely to report a lower starting age when they first tried alcohol. For instance, individuals in social classes C2, D, E reported 15.5 years as their average starting age, with social class F reporting 13.1 years. This is in comparison to 16 years for social classes ABC1 (Drinkaware, 2019).