Working to reduce alcohol harm

How much are we really drinking?

What is our current level of per capita alcohol consumption?

Our current level of alcohol consumption, based on 2016 figures, is 11.46 litres of pure alcohol per person aged 15+, an increase of 4.8% from 2015 (10.93 litres). If you exclude the 20% of the population aged 15+ who do not drink alcohol, our alcohol consumption rises to 14.33 litres of pure alcohol for every Irish person aged 15 and over.

There were increases recorded in all categories of alcohol during 2016: spirits (+8.9%), cider (+8.5%), wine (+6.2%), and beer (+3.7%).

How is our per capita alcohol consumption worked out in Ireland?

Alcohol consumption figures for Ireland are calculated on the basis of figures provided by the Office of the Revenue Commissioners and the Central Statistics Office (CSO). The total volume of alcohol consumed, measured in litres of pure alcohol, is based on Revenue’s clearances data. Revenue’s clearances data provides information on the alcohol content of spirits and beer, but not for wine and cider products. Therefore, for wine and cider, estimates of 12.5% and 4.5% ABV are applied to work out the aggregate alcohol content of the products in these categories. These estimates can be considered conservative in the current market.

When the figure of litres of pure alcohol across the categories is totalled using Revenue’s clearances data, this figure is then divided by the population aged 15-years-old and above, as defined by the latest information available from the CSO.

  • The total volume of alcohol cleared (litre of pure alcohol) was 41,654,332.12 in 2016, an increase of 5.7% from 2015 (39,420,693.54 litres).
  • The population aged 15+ (CSO estimates) was 3,634,400 in 2016, an increase of 0.8% from 3,606,000 in 2015.

Why use per capita alcohol consumption?

Per capita alcohol consumption figures are used to compare alcohol consumption across different countries and also to examine changing trends over time within countries. They are considered important for health policy and in several other areas (e.g. taxation). Though not an exact measure of alcohol consumption, per capita alcohol consumption is considered a good indicator of levels of alcohol harm in a country. International evidence reflects that the higher the average level of alcohol consumption in the population, the higher the levels of alcohol harm will be in that country. Reducing per capita alcohol consumption can reduce alcohol harms throughout society.

Do the figures provide an accurate reflection of our per capita alcohol consumption?

There are several limitations to the per capita alcohol consumption measure. In per capita figures, everyone aged 15+ is included and considered an adult, which is clearly not the case. Meanwhile, per capita figures don’t account for changing demographics and the proportion of the Irish population in the 20 to 29-year-old age range, which surveys show are the heaviest drinkers, has dropped substantially in the past decade, while the proportion of the population aged 65 and over – who on average drink less than their younger counterparts – has been increasing.

Surveys consistently shows that over a fifth of Irish people do not drink at all. The Healthy Ireland Survey 2016 found that 24% of respondents had not consumed alcohol in the previous 12 months and when we consider this high abstention rate, it means that those who do drink in Ireland are consuming significantly more, on average, than the per capita consumption figure indicates.

Other notable limitations with the per capita method are that it cannot capture alcohol sourced in other jurisdictions by people in Ireland or the impact of inward and outward tourism.One of the other key aspects to consider with regard to Ireland’s alcohol consumption is that it is not just how much alcohol is consumed, but the pattern of drinking that determines levels of harm in a population. The World Health Organisation found that Ireland has the second highest rate of heavy episodic drinking in the world. Per capita alcohol consumption does not allow us to examine drinking patterns, which is why comprehensive surveys examining alcohol consumption, such as those conducted by the Health Research Board and Healthy Ireland, remain key for formulating health policy.

Is our current per capita alcohol consumption a high or low figure?

At 11.46 litres of pure alcohol per person every year, we are still drinking at high levels and experiencing unacceptably high levels of alcohol-related harm as a result, a situation that is exacerbated by our drinking patterns, particularly the prevalence of binge drinking.

Our low-risk weekly guidelines are a maximum of 17 standard drinks for a man and 11 standard drinks for a woman.

What about our alcohol consumption trends over time?

Alcohol consumption in Ireland almost trebled over four decades between 1960 (4.9 litres of pure alcohol per capita) and 2000 (14.1 litres of pure alcohol per capita), as alcohol became much more affordable and more widely available.Since then, our alcohol consumption has declined by 19.6%, from a peak of 14.3 litres of pure alcohol per capita in 2001, to 11.5 litres in 2016.

However, this decline has not been consistent throughout those years, with changing levels of affordability, related to excise duty and economic factors, having a direct and immediate impact on population consumption patterns.

2002-2003

Alcohol consumption fell from 14.2 litres per capita in 2002 to 13.4 litres in 2003. There was an increase in excise duty on cider (to equalise its treatment with beer) in 2002 and a 20c rise on excise duty on spirits in 2003, as well as the scrapping of the reduced rate for spirits-based alcopops. This led to a sharp fall in spirits consumption and an overall fall of 6% in alcohol consumption from its peak.

2004-2007

Our alcohol consumption figures remained relatively steady from 2004 to 2007, when there were no changes in excise duty rates, dipping slightly from 13.4 litres per capita to 13.2 litres over this four-year period.

2008-2009

Alcohol consumption fell significantly in 2008 and 2009, when there was an overall reduction of 16%, as the recession hit levels of disposable income in Ireland. Per capita alcohol consumption dropped from 13.2 litres in 2007 to 12.2 litres in 2008, before a further fall to 11 litres in 2009, when excise duty on wine was increased.

2010-2012

Despite the continuing impact of the recession, our alcohol consumption increased by 0.6 litres per capita in 2010 to 11.6 litres. This increase is largely attributable a significant excise duty cut of 20% on all alcohol products. Our alcohol consumption then remained relatively steady in 2011 (11.7 litres) and 2012 (11.5 litres).

2013-2016

An excise duty increase on all alcoholic beverages in 2013 resulted in an immediate fall in alcohol consumption by almost one litre to 10.6 litres per capita. Despite a further excise duty increase in 2014, alcohol consumption increased to 11 litres of pure alcohol per capita, decreasing slightly to 10.9 litres during 2015, before increasing to almost 11.5 litres during 2016, when the price of alcohol fell by 4.9% in the off-trade, according to the Consumer Price Index.

Find more facts and figures on our alcohol consumption here.