Do UK teen girls top the European binge drinking league table?

Published: 02 Jul 2012

"British teenage girls are biggest binge drinkers in Europe."

Telegraph, 2 July 2012

"UK's teenage girls are biggest binge drinkers in Europe as more than half of 15-year-olds drink to excess at least once a month."

Daily Mail, 2 July 2012

Britain has long had a reputation for being a nation that likes a tipple, and according to two of the morning's papers Brits are picking up the binge-drinking habit earlier than their counterparts on the continent.

The Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph both reported that the UK's teenage girls are the 'biggest binge drinkers in Europe'.

So is the British reputation well-deserved?

Analysis

The papers both point to evidence given to the Health Select Committee by the Department of Health as the source of the claim, which in turn uses data from the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and other Drugs (ESPAD).

Sure enough we can see that the Department has indeed contributed to the Committee's inquiry into the Government's Alcohol Strategy.

The data at the heart of the claims comes from a 2007 ESPAD survey of 15-year-olds drinking habits. A more recent 2011 study has since been published, however this doesn't include data for the UK.

The ESPAD survey looks into a number of measures of teen drinking, including the proportion of teens who drink, the total estimated alcohol consumed over a month and even the proportion choosing to knock back beer, wine or spirits.

The measure used to determine the prevalence of 'binge drinking' mentioned in the newspaper headlines is the proportion of 15-year-olds putting away five drinks or more on a single occassion at least once in the past month.

As table 56 of the report confirms, 55 per cent of British girls admitted to having reached this particular milestone in the past 30 days, a higher share than any other European country in the report (if we ignore the Isle of Man, which reported 61 per cent of girls binge drinking, and is counted separately from the UK in the study).

However we have to be a little careful before we can label British girls 'the biggest binge drinkers in Europe'. While they have the dubious honour of topping the European table for their gender, several countries reported a higher proportion of their boys admitting to binge drinking. Overall, the UK ranks second for binge drinking on this measure behind Malta.

Another important caveat that should be noted is that the 2007 data doesn't cover every European country when it comes to 'binge drinking'.

Significantly, neither Germany nor the Netherlands have provided figures on the prevalence of binge drinking among their teens. Both of these countries reported a higher proportion of girls drinking on other measures (such as consuming any alcoholic beverage in the past 30 days) than the UK elsewhere in the study.

Conclusion

It isn't difficult to trace the source for the newspapers' claim that Brit girls are the biggest binge drinkers in Europe, and they are correct in their assertions.

However, if boys are factored into the comparison, then British girls cannot be considered the biggest binge drinkers, as 62 per cent of Maltese boys admitted to having a five-drink drinking session in the past month, compared to 55 per cent of UK girls. Malta also pips the UK to the post overall, with 57 per cent of teens binge drinking, compared to 54 per cent in the UK.

The omission of important countries such as Germany and the Netherlands from the 'binge drinking' part of the survey also complicates matters, as both of these nations have high levels of reported teen alcohol use in other areas of the study.


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