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There is not a single drinking culture in the UK. iStock

The British are often seen as a nation of binge drinkers. But research has now shown this is a bit of an unfair assessment – about half the time we are able to drink without getting drunk.

A report, funded by Alcohol Research UK, undermines the clichés, pointing out that 46% of the time people drink at home in a relaxed and moderate way, stopping at a small glass of wine with a meal, a cocktail with friends, or one or two shots of their favourite liquor.

However, the authors, from Sheffield University, say all other drinking remained associated with intensive heavy-drinking, during which the cocktail often turned into seven pints, and the glass of wine into a complete bottle.

The findings, published in the journal Addiction, are based on data collected between 2009 and 2011 from 60,215 British adults. Their one-week drinking diary gave researchers the opportunity to come up with a pattern of British drinking practices.

Light or heavy drinking

Places, drinking companions and reasons for were all analysed, as well as the gender and the age of the respondents. Light, low-risk drinking was defined as consuming less than six units for women or eight units for men during one occasion. The researchers identified two different trends: drinking at home or drinking out, with most individuals sharing their drinking time equally between both locations.

While heavy drinking in bars or at the pub remains common, drinking with a partner in the comfort of the home – whether heavy or light drinking – appears to be a more frequent way of consuming alcohol in the UK. Beyond that, contrasting patterns were observed regarding in-house drinking. It was considered as much a place for families to share a few casual drinks as well as an environment for lone individuals to binge-drink.

The study also showed that people who alternated between a public venue and their home, for example by pre-drinking before going out, had a very high risk of binge-drinking. They consumed on average 14 units of alcohol – the equivalent of seven pints of beer or one and a half bottles of wine.

More complex culture

Overall, the study shows that British binge-drinking culture is more complex than previously thought, with important variations between people. It is not a case of who binge-drinks and when, but how different contexts can increases risky drinking behaviours.

"Rather than assuming society is neatly divided between 'binge', 'heavy' or 'moderate' drinkers we should think about the occasions on which people drink more or less heavily – and the fact we may be moderate in some contexts, and less so in others", concludes Dr James Nicholls, Director of Research at Alcohol Research UK.

"If we want to address problems associated with drinking, we need to recognise the diversity of how we drink and understand the crucial role that cultures and contexts play in that."