Alcohol consumption in Ireland
This page is currently being revised and will be updated over the coming weeks. Some links to citations may therefore not be accessible at present
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.
Content last updated on April 5th 2023. Page content is currently under review for updates as of 25th October 2023.
Adult per capita alcohol consumption in Ireland
The most recent data (2019) available shows that in Ireland, total per capita (15+) alcohol consumption in litres of pure alcohol is 12.75 litres. 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 (World Health Organisation) 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 12.27 litres. To put this into perspective, in 2019, alcohol consumption in the world, measured in litres of pure alcohol per person of 15 years of age or older, was 5.8 litres, which is a 5% relative decrease from 6.1 litres in 2010.
In 2019, recorded per capita alcohol consumption per adult aged 15 and over was 10.8 litres of pure alcohol. This corresponds to 40 (700ml) bottles of vodka, 113 (750ml) 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 on alcohol excise receipts and volumes show that recorded consumption in Ireland was 10.2 litres of alcohol per capita over the age of 15 year. This is an increase of 7.6% compared to 2021. In 2013, the government set a target that Ireland should reduce its alcohol use to 9.1 litres per capita and to have achieved this by 2020. In 2022, the Revenue data shows that beer consumption increased by 11.6%. Spirit consumption increased by 5.7%. Cider consumption increased by 0.8% and wine consumption decreased by 2.5%. It is important to note that wine consumption did increase by 15.5% in Q4 of 2022 compared to Q3 of 2022.
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 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 (2021), 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 reflect consumption of alcohol more accurately, 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,’ and 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?
Several 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, 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 2022: State of Health in the EU (European Union) Cycle provides further international comparisons on alcohol consumption. In Ireland, the overall alcohol consumption among adults in 2021 was 9.5 litres of alcohol. This is a decrease from 10.1 litres in 2020, 10.8 litres in 2019 and 11 litres in 2018. The OECD average recorded per capita consumption in Europe is 9.8 litres per adult.
An overview of Irelands’ consumption 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. Over the past decade, alcohol consumption has decreased in most EU countries.
In Ireland, per-capita consumption is greater than across the European region. According to the World Health Organisation, the Global total per capita consumption average was 5.8 litres, while the total per capita consumption average for Europe was 9.5 litres.
Limitations of consumption data comparisons
The methodology to convert alcohol drinks to pure alcohol may differ across countries. For instance, The OECD’s Health at a Glance 2021: OECD Indicators, Ireland’s per capita consumption (10.8 litres per capita 15 years and over, using only recorded figures) is the joint tenth highest among OECD countries. The ten highest levels of per capita consumption were recorded in Latvia (12.9l), followed by Czechia (11.9l), Austria (11.6l), France (11.4l), Hungary (11.4l), Lithuania (11.1l), Slovenia (11.1l), Luxembourg (11l), Poland (11l), Russia (10.8l) and Ireland (10.8l). The lowest level of per capita consumption recorded was in Indonesia (0.1l).
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 various parts of the world. For example, the WHO (World Health Organisation) 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 (OECD 2021). The relationship between per capita consumption and harm is modified by the number of drinkers in a population and the way alcohol is consumed (Health Research Board, 2016). 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 country 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 under sampling 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 (World Health Organisation) 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 2022 identified that overall, 67% of the population (sample age 15+) consumed alcohol in the past 6 months.
- In the 2019–20 National Drugs and Alcohol Survey, 74.2% of survey respondents reported having consumed alcohol in the last 12 months, corresponding to 2,903,000 of the general population in Ireland aged 15 years and older.
- According to Drinkaware’s Barometer data, 83% of Irish adults drink alcohol at least once in the last 30 days. This question is asked annually and the result for 2021 was 77% and 72% for 2020.
- This is broadly in line with those reported in the initial CSO (Central Statistics Office) Social Impact of COVID-19 Survey that found 80.6% 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. In the Healthy Ireland Survey 2022, this figure appears to have slightly dropped as 52% of those reporting that they consumed alcohol in the last six months did so at least once a week. It must be noted that this is also a decrease from 2021 (62%).
- Pre-COVID 19, the Drinkaware Index 2019 found that 44% of Irish adults (aged +18) reported drinking alcohol at least once a week. In Barometer, 52% of Irish adults drink alcohol at least on a weekly basis. This question is asked annually and the result for 2021 was 55% and 52% for 2020 (Barometer 2022).
- There were some notable demographic data identified in the 2022 data. For instance, the 18-24 group have had a large decrease in weekly drinkers. In 2022, the figure stood at 33%. This is a noticeably large drop from 51% in 2021 and 38% in 2020. 65+ year old at 63% are mostly likely to report consuming alcohol on at least a weekly basis in the past 30 days. Higher rates of weekly drinking are reported among men (59%) vs women (45%) in 2022 (Barometer 2022).
- This corresponds with similar rates of weekly drinking among men (61%) and women (53%) identified in Healthy Ireland 2021. The Healthy Ireland 2022 report did not repeat this statistic.
- Significantly the 2022 Healthy Ireland data identifies an 8-point gender gap, men drink alcohol more frequently than women. 36% of male drinkers drink alcohol more than once a week, compared to 27% of female drinkers.
Quantity of alcohol consumed
- Just over half (51%) of drinkers in this age group drink at least once a week, with 26% doing so multiple times a week as recorded in the Healthy Ireland 2022 report.
- According to Drinkaware Barometer data, when those, who in last 30 days had drank alcohol, were asked how many standard drinks were consumed on a typical day in 2022 in Ireland, the mean (average) reported was 4.1
- Alternatively, the 2019–20 Irish National Drug and Alcohol Survey stated that the mean number of standard drinks consumed per typical drinking occasion was 5.0. This ranged from 3.8 among females to 6.2 among males and from 6.1 among 15–24-year-olds to 3.6 among those aged 65 years and older.
- 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), male value 19.4l and female value 6.3l and both sexes was 12.7l.
- 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 were 14.5l.
- In comparison with EU figures, total alcohol consumption per capita 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 about four-fold higher in men.
- Data from Barometer 2022, found a higher incidence of weekly consumption among men (59%) compared with women (45%) (Barometer 2022). Noticeably, there is no decrease for men and a noticeable decrease for women compared to the 2021 figures, (59%) among men and (50%) when compared with women.
- According to the 2019–20 Irish National Drug and Alcohol Survey, males consumed alcohol more frequently than females, with 63.1% of males consuming alcohol weekly compared with 50.3% of females.
Irish household spends on alcohol
- According to Eurostat, households in Ireland spent 2.2% of their total consumption expenditure on alcoholic beverages in 2019. Across the EU, households spent €116 billion on alcohol beverages, representing 1.6% of their total consumption expenditure and equivalent to 0.8% of EU GDP.
- In Europe, Ireland was the 14th highest (2.2%) when it came to the share of total consumption expenditure spent on alcoholic beverages but notably was 3rd highest in Western Europe, aside from Luxembourg (2.5%) and Iceland (2.4%).
- 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 spends on ‘drink consumed at home’ was €10.56. Due to the periodicity of this survey being every 5 years, Household Budget Survey 2020 is pending and due to inflation and the introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing among other factors. It is expected that the average weekly expenditure will likely be higher than the cited €28 figure.
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 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 initial 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).
- Following on from the 2020 Barometer, in 2021– 19% claimed that they were drinking ‘less’ in the past 30 days, while 8% reported that they were drinking ‘more’ in the past 30 days and 11% indicated that someone in their household was drinking ‘more’.
- These findings are in line with, and expand on, other Irish COVID-19 research conducted by the CSO (Central Statistics Office) 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). This dissipates in 2021 as the rate plummets to 8% for both men and women.
- 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 old’s 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.
- In 2020, 17% 18–24-year old’s reported not drinking at all. However, this decreased to 7% in 2021. In 2020, 24% reported an increase in their personal drinking during the initial lockdown phase in line with the national average reported (25%). In 2021, this decreased to 15% but the national average for 2021 was 8%.
- 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 2022 Barometer revealed complacent and complicit over-consumption of alcohol among Irish adults with 50% believing that drinking to excess is ‘just a part of Irish culture’, this is reduction from 74% in 2019 (Barometer 2022).
According to the Healthy Ireland Survey 2022, 32% of those who consumed alcohol in the previous 6 months are considered binge drinkers. This is higher than was measured in 2021 (22%) but remains behind the levels of binge drinking measured in 2018 (37%). The Healthy Ireland report would categorise 22% of the population (aged 15+) as binge drinkers, compared with 20% in 2021, and 28% in 2018. As with previous waves of Healthy Ireland data, men (48%) are more likely to binge drink than women (16%). However, the gender gap in binge drinking has returned to pre-pandemic levels having narrowed considerably in the 2021 survey (men: 35%, women: 10%). Those who drink under the age of 25 remain more likely than other drinkers to binge drink on a typical drinking occasion (46%). However, while the proportion of men in this age group who binge drink on a typical drinking occasion has returned to pre-pandemic levels, the proportion of women who do so remains lower (2018 – men aged under 25: 67%, women aged under 25: 37%). 13% of those who binge drink on a typical drinking occasion report that children aged under 16 are present on at least some of these occasions. 27% of parents who binge drink report the same – 29% of fathers and 24% of mothers.
In terms of new data from 2022, fewer young adults than other age cohorts may have been drinking weekly but were also one of the lowest cohorts for binge drinking (in last 30 days) but were more likely to frequently binge drink two-three times but least to four or more times. In 2022, over half of 18-24-year-olds reported binge drinking during (61%), higher than the national average of 55% (Barometer 2022).
This appears to be a shift in direction as previous Drinkaware data and other Irish research serves to corroborate the trends up until this year. 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). This question has not been repeated in subsequent Barometers.
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.
Regarding data from Barometer 2022, (Barometer 2022) 20% of Irish drinkers report binge drinking (6 or more standard drinks) at least once in the past 30 days. Men are most likely to report typically binge drinking with 35% doing so, compared with 20% of women. A few key factors of consideration to keep in mind is that the rise in binge drinking since 2020 peaks among males & those 25-34 years and the rise since 2020 is however especially pronounced among women. The average in 2022 for those consuming 6 or more standard drinks in the past 30 days is 55%. Men over index at 67%. The 25-34 age cohort over index at 68%. Women are represented at 44% but this is a large comparative increase from 2020 (35%).
Data from the Healthy Ireland Survey 2016 used in reporting the WHO (World Health Organisation) 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 Health Research Board found that more than half (51.3%) of all drinkers were classified as hazardous drinkers using the World Health Organization’s AUDIT-C screening tool. This was more common among male (65.7%) than female drinkers (36.5%), particularly younger males, with 70.4% of 15–24-year-old male drinkers meeting the criteria for hazardous drinking. Drinkers aged 65 years and older were least likely to have an AUDIT-C score of 5 or higher (38.2%). In this study, the updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) combined the two former categorisations of abnormal alcohol use (alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence) into one diagnosis: alcohol use disorder (AUD) which can be classified as mild, moderate, or severe. In the 2019–20 NDAS (National Drugs and Alcohol Survey), AUD was measured using the DSM-5.
Gender and binge drinking comparisons
As with previous waves, men (48%) are more likely to binge drink than women (16%). However, the gender gap in binge drinking has returned to pre-pandemic levels having narrowed considerably in the 2021 survey (men: 35%, women: 10%) (Healthy Ireland 2022).
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 2022 Drinkaware Barometer also provides important data on binge drinking in terms of gender. This has been discussed earlier but to recap, the data has revealed that that men in Ireland, particularly under-34s, are exhibiting consistent hazardous drinking patterns but women are catching up.
On average, Irish men are more likely than women to engage in binge drinking. In 2022, 35% of men would have 6 or more drinks in a typical drinking session compared to 20% of women (LINK TO BAROMETER).
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 to the pattern of the drinker and occasions of high-volume drinking such as heavy episodic (or binge) drinking (HED).
Using the WHO alcohol use disorder test (AUDIT), the Drinkaware Index identified hazardous/increasing risk drinkers (21% of the drinking population) as well as a subset of drinkers within the low-risk group who can be classified as at potential risk, and who constitute 23% of the drinking population. Significantly, this group were classified as at potential risk of becoming hazardous drinkers within what was previously considered a broadly low risk cohort. Furthermore, 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.
The majority of drinkers (74.1%) classified themselves as either a light or moderate drinker. A further one-quarter (24.1%) of drinkers classified themselves as a light drinker who sometimes binge drinks or a moderate drinker who sometimes binge drinks, and 1.7% classified themselves as either a heavy drinker or as a heavy drinker who sometimes binge drinks. Among those with AUD, just 7.0% classified themselves as a heavy drinker, whereas 44.4% classified themselves as a light or a moderate drinker.
In addition, the Health Research Board have noted that many drinkers have experienced negative consequences as a result of their own drinking. The consequences were: role impairment (for example, at work, at school, or when taking care of the household), accidentally hurt yourself, been in a fight, harm to home life or marriage, and harm to health.
The proportion of drinkers who reported at least one of these harms was 13.5%, ranging from 3.1% who experienced harm to their home life or marriage to 10.2% who had accidentally hurt themselves. Males were more likely than females to experience any harm (17.3% versus 9.8%) and those aged 15–24 years were most likely to experience harm (27.6%).
Problem alcohol use in Ireland
The prevalence of alcohol use disorders is 8.5% in Ireland vs WHO (World Health Organisation) 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. The total number of cases treated for problem alcohol use in Ireland in 2021 was 6,859. The median age in 2021 of treated cases was 42 years and 16 years was the median age reported of cases first starting to drink. Almost two-thirds of cases in 2021 were male (62.6%). Nearly two-thirds (65.9%) of new cases classified as alcohol dependent in 2021, 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 70.2% in 2021. Polydrug use was reported by 23.7% of cases in 2021, accounting for more than one-fifth of those treated for problem alcohol use.
WHO data identifies a 3.8% alcohol dependence rate among Irish adults and 8.5% rate of alcohol use disorders in Ireland. This data set has yet to be updated since 2016.
Alcohol abstinence in Ireland
Rates of abstaining from alcohol in Ireland are relatively consistent across numerous studies conducted during different years. WHO (World Health Organisation) Global Health Observatory data from 2016 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).
Data on abstention in the WHO European region identified 59.9% current drinkers, 6.6% former drinkers and 23.5% lifetime abstainers in 2016.
11% of Irish adults in the 2022 Barometer report that they never drink alcohol. While high levels of binge drinking among under-25s were reported, 18% of this age group also reported that they do not consume alcohol at all (Barometer 2022).
This corroborates to the data presented in the 2019–20 Irish National Drug and Alcohol Survey. One-quarter of respondents (25.7%) did not consume alcohol in the 12 months prior to the NDAS (defined as non-drinkers). Females (28.4%) were more likely than males (23.1%) to be non-drinkers. The highest proportion of non-drinkers was in the 65 years and older age group (45.2% of females and 36.6% of males), followed by the 15–24-year-old age group (28.2%). The proportion of non-drinkers varied by level of deprivation – 30.0% of those in the most deprived quintile were non-drinkers, compared with 21.4% in the least deprived quintile.
The HRB (Health Research Board) 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
Ireland and the World and Underage Drinking:
According to international HBSC data, alcohol is the substance most used by 15-year-olds. 59% of 15-year-olds have ever drunk alcohol compared with 28% for cigarette-smoking and 13% for cannabis use.
One‑in-five adolescents, on average, experienced drunkenness at least twice in their life in 2017‑18, in 26 OECD countries.
The 2019 ESPAD (European Schools Project on Alcohol and other Drugs), a cross-sectional survey of substance use among 99,647 students aged 15–16 years in 35 countries in Europe, reported that 79% of schoolchildren had drunk alcohol at least once by the time they were aged 16 years, and almost one-half (47%) reported drinking alcohol in the last month. Schoolchildren in Ireland reported a lower rate of lifetime alcohol use (73%) than the ESPAD average (79%) and a lower rate of last month alcohol use (41% in Ireland) than the ESPAD average (47%). However, rates of reporting being drunk in the last month were higher in Ireland (16%) than the ESPAD average (13%).
A study published in the Lancet analysed data from 195 countries and territories from 1990 to 2016 to investigate adolescent health and well-being. The study found that Ireland had the third highest level in the world of female adolescent HED (or binge drinking) in the last year (61%) and the fourth highest level of male adolescent HED (59%).
A 2016 study using ESPAD and HBSC data, investigated the alcohol drinking cultures of European adolescents (aged 12–16 years) and found that adolescents in Ireland were ranked second among 25 European countries for the level of risky drinking (27%), while the rate of non-drinkers in Ireland (40%) was below the European average (44%).
Ireland and Underage Drinking:
The most recent Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey was carried out in 2018 by NUIG. 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).
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.
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.
A survey developed by the UCD School of Psychology and Jigsaw (2020) noted the drinking patterns of secondary school children. The results found that most first-years (92%) reported that they had never drank alcohol with 81% of second-years, 63% of third-years, 41% of fourth-years, 24% of fifth years and only 13% of sixth years reporting that they had never drank alcohol. Of those who had drank alcohol, 65% fell into the low-risk drinking range, 28% were classified as problem drinkers, 4% as harmful and hazardous drinkers, and 3% as potentially alcohol-dependent. Males were more likely than females to fall into the possible alcohol dependence category.
Underage Drinking and Being Drunk:
Of adolescents aged 15–16 years participating in the 2019 ESPAD, 36% reported being drunk in their lifetime; more females (37%) than males (35%) reported this.
The same report notes of those adolescents surveyed of being drunk in the last month was reported by 16% of adolescents aged 15—16 years; more commonly reported among young females (17%) than males (15%).
Age of First Drink:
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.
Among those who participated in the 2019–20 Irish National Drug and Alcohol Survey, the mean age of first use was found to be 17.7 years (median: 17 years). There has also been an increase in the age of first use of alcohol among those aged 15–24 years; in 2002–03, the mean age of first use was 15.6 years (median: 16 years), and this increased with each survey to 16.6 years (median: 17 years) in 2019–20.
Among 17–18-year-olds interviewed in 2015-2016 for the Growing Up in Ireland study, of the 90% who had consumed alcohol, 8% reported that they first consumed alcohol at age 13 years or under; 11% at age 14 years; 20% at age 15 years; 29% at age 16 years; 19% at age 17–18 years. When interviewed at 20 years of age, the respondents stated that the average age they had started drinking alcohol was 16 years.
Type of Alcohol Consumed:
Sex differences in types of drinks consumed are presented in the 2019 ESPAD cross-sectional survey. Beer was the most consumed alcoholic drink in the last month (36%) among boys participating in the survey, followed by cider (32%). Females were more likely to consume spirits (32%) and cider (25%). It is unclear why there are sex differences in drink preferences.
Among 2019 ESPAD respondents in Ireland, both males and females most frequently cited social reasons for drinking alcohol, including helping them enjoy parties (47% of males and 49% of females) and making social gatherings more fun (49% for both males and females). Of concern is the number of adolescents reporting that they drink alcohol to cheer up (19% of males and 25% of females) and to forget about their problems (17% of males and 23% of females).
Alcohol at Home:
The Irish Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study notes that a quarter of teens who drink, are buying alcohol in bars, discos, off licenses and/or shops and a third are consuming it in bars, pubs and/or discos.20
The same study notes more than half of teens who drink are accessing it at home, either being given it by a parent (34%) or sibling (9%) or taking it from the home (11%). In addition, 56% are consuming alcohol in the home setting – either their own (26%) or someone else’s home (30%).
This data correlates to Maynooth University data (2019 evaluation of Drinkaware’s Alcohol Education Programme) that found 41% of the students who indicated they had consumed alcohol on at least one occasion, had done so in the home.
Alcohol consumption among older people in Ireland
Older people have historically tended to drink less than younger age groups. However, incidence of weekly consumption peaks among senior age group at 54%, while the 65+year age cohort reported lowest incidence of typically binge drinking in past 30 days across age cohorts at 15%.
According to the Healthy Ireland Survey data from 2022, 28% of men aged between 65-74 binge drink, compared to 4% of women the same age. In addition, 27% of men aged 75+ binge drink compared to less than 1% of women of the same age. Having said that, 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 ageing 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.
In the latest data from 2022, weekly consumption was higher among higher socio-economic groups (53%) vs lower socio-economic groups (50%). However, higher socio-economic groups are more likely to indicate any binge drinking with other half doing so (59%) vs 51% 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). This particular question has not been repeated in subsequent Barometers.