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.
In this research bank, you can find the latest national and international data relating to alcohol consumption in Ireland.
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 is 13 litres. This includes both recorded and unrecorded per capita consumption from 2015-2017, which together provide 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 will 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 available from 2016 show that 47% was accounted for by consumption of beer, followed by 28% for wine, 18.8% for spirits and 6.2% other.
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’, 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?
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.
The 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 Health at a Glance report provides international comparisons on alcohol consumption. By international standards, Ireland has a high rate of per capita consumption (Mongan & Long, 2016). The WHO European region average is 9.8 litres (8l recorded, 1.8l unrecorded), while global average is 6.4 litres (4.7l recorded, 1.6l unrecorded).
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 (OECD 2019). 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 (HRB 2016).
Weekly drinking in Ireland
- The Healthy Ireland Survey 2018 found that three-quarters of adults (15+) in Ireland have drunk alcohol in the past year, with over half (55%) of drinkers drinking at least once a week.
- 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 are most prone to weekly consumption, followed by under 25s, 46% of whom drink on a weekly basis (Drinkaware, 2019).
Consumption comparison by gender
- Men are more likely than women to drink at increasing and higher risk levels. According to the WHO Global Health Observatory data repository Ireland (2016), total per capita (15+) consumption (in litres of pure alcohol) with 95%CI, male value 20.4l and female value 5.8l and both sexes was 13l.
- However, when accounting for drinkers only, the 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.
Irish household spend on alcohol
- According to Eurostat, households in Ireland spent 2.2% of their total consumption expenditure on alcoholic beverages in 2018. This represents an equivalent to 0.7% of GDP or €450 per inhabitant. Across the EU, households spent 1.6% of their total consumption expenditure on alcoholic beverages, equivalent to 0.9% of GDP or €270 per EU inhabitant.
- 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.
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. 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 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. 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 seven 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.
Data from the Healthy Ireland Survey 2016 used in reporting the WHO Status Report 2019 shows that 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.
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 harms are not only related to volume of alcohol consumed, but also to patterns of drinking and specifically, occasions of 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. 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 form 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 2012-2018. The total number of cases treated for problem alcohol use in Ireland in 2018 was 7,464. The median age of treated cases was 41 years and almost two-thirds of cases in 2018 were male (64.5%). In addition, seven-in-every-ten cases were classified as alcohol dependent. Polydrug use was reported by 21.5% of cases in 2018, 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.
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).
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.
Data on abstention in the WHO European region identified 59.9% current drinkers, 6.6% former drinkers and 23.5% lifetime abstainers in 2016.
Alcohol consumption among under 18s in Ireland
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).
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 (published in 2020) from the second of a three-year evaluation of Drinkaware’s Alcohol Education Programme currently being conducted by Maynooth University corroborate this data, and found that the largest proportion (57%) of second year students had their first drink either at their own, or someone else’s house.
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.
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.
Alcohol consumption among older people in Ireland
Older people have historically tended to drink less than younger age groups. However, harmful use of alcohol is an under-reported problem among older people, particularly men. 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
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.
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).