Alcohol Consumption Within Guideline Levels Could Mean a 38% Drop in Revenue for the Alcohol Industry

A strategy to decrease harmful drinking has been to work with the alcohol industry to encourage a culture of “responsible drinking,” but critics note that the industry’s profitability is linked to alcohol consumption. Using data from surveys of households on alcohol spending and “typical” consumption, researchers estimated the extent of sales and revenue from consumption above guideline levels in England. Current United Kingdom (UK) guidelines recommend limiting drinking to 14 UK units per week for men and women (equivalent to 8 standard US drinks/week). They estimated the monetary value of consumption by beverage type and location: “on-trade” where alcohol is consumed on-site (i.e., bars, restaurants, etc.), versus “off-trade” where alcohol is purchased in a store and consumed elsewhere.

  • An estimated 77% of all alcohol units were sold to individuals who drank above guidelines; this accounted for 44% of all sales. Furthermore, 4% of the population consumed 30% of the alcohol units, accounting for 23% of alcohol sales.
  • Sales from those drinking above guideline levels accounted for an estimated 81% of revenue from “off-trade” versus 60% of “on-trade.”
  • Consumption within guidelines would lead to an estimated fall in revenue of 38%—a loss of £13 billion ($21 billion)—with “off-trade” revenue being most affected.
  • To recoup losses through price increases, “off-trade” product prices would need to increase 80–98% while “on-trade” would need to increase 22–75%.

Comments: This study demonstrates that the alcohol industry’s revenue is highly dependent on people who are drinking above guideline levels. Therefore, this industry has a significant commercial conflict of interest in promoting responsible drinking; we should be wary of their endorsement of self-regulation and involvement in research activities.

Jarratt Pytell, MD† & Darius A. Rastegar, MD

† Contributing editorial intern and Addiction Medicine Fellow, Johns Hopkins Medicine

Reference: Bhattacharya A, Angus C, Pryce R, et al. How dependent is the alcohol industry on heavy drinking in England? Addiction. 2018;113:2225–2232.

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