Issue date: 21 May 2002

The findings have just been published of a survey of drinking, smoking and illicit drug use among a representative sample of 2,027 British adults. The lead article in the latest issue of the Journal of Substance Use, this work reports on a study conducted by a team led by Dr Moira Plant of the Faculty of Health and Social Care at the University of the West of England, Bristol (UWE). Dr Plant is also Director of the Alcohol and Health Research Centre, a charity that has just relocated its base to UWE.

The survey showed that substantial proportions of adults have been exceeding what many UK health professionals recognise as the 'sensible' limits for weekly alcohol consumption. These limits are 14 'units' for women and 21 'units' for men. (A 'unit' of alcohol is equivalent to half a pint of normal strength beer, cider, lager or stout or a small glass of wine or a pub measure of spirits). Among those aged 18-64, between 17% and 34% of men of different ages and between 7% and 20% of women reported drinking above such limits. Younger individuals were those most likely to report such relatively heavy drinking.

The survey also showed that negative effects associated with alcohol consumption were commonplace. For example, among the drinkers who were surveyed, the following four problems emerged as being some of those most often reported:

Type of adverse effect experienced in past year
Males Females
N %** N %**
Hangovers 411 46% 351 39%
Financial problems 109 12% 41 5%
Harm to physical health 89 10% 25 3%
Fighting due to drinking 126 14% 27 3%

** Percentages are based on the numbers who had reportedly consumed alcohol in the past year.

As this table shows, levels of such problems were particularly common among males. The same was true of a range of other problems, investigated, such as relationship problems, alcohol impaired driving, accidents and loss or near loss of employment..

More than a third of those surveyed, 35% of women and 39% of men, had smoked tobacco in the past year. In addition 9% of women and 6% of men reported having 'misused' prescription medications in the past year. The study also revealed that 17% of men and 8% of the women surveyed had used some type of illicit drug in the past year, most commonly cannabis. Among the 18-24 year old group, 41% of males and 34% of females had used such substances in the past year. Analysis of the results showed that heavier alcohol consumption was associated with stress, and that both alcohol and drug problems were also associated with experience of sexual abuse. The researchers plan to examine these connections in greater detail.

Reviewing these findings, Dr Moira Plant has commented:

"Heavy and inappropriate drinking is associated with a massive toll of harmful effects. This study serves to emphasise that, contrary to popular mythology, women neither drink more nor experience more alcohol problems than men. The reverse is clearly the case. In addition, tobacco smoking continues to be depressingly widespread. In the UK each year there are over 120,000 premature deaths related to tobacco. There are no magic solutions to such problems, even so, public policy needs to give a much higher priority to behaviours that inflict damage and misery on such an enormous scale. Attention needs to be paid to effective ways of making prevention and early intervention more effective and more widely available for those who would derive benefit from such help."

* Plant, M.L., Plant, M.A. and Mason, W. (2002) "Drinking, smoking and illicit drug use among British adults: gender differences explored”, Journal of Substance Use, Volume 7, pages 1-10.


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