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21 July 2021

Alcohol misuse remains high among UK military personnel who were in service at the start of the 2003 conflict in Iraq

The King’s Centre for Military Health Research (KCMHR) has found that more than two thirds (68%) of UK military personnel continue to misuse alcohol at levels that are hazardous to their health and wellbeing.

Researchers identify the reasons for drinking in UK military personnel

The research, published in Addiction, has found that while there has been an overall improvement in levels of alcohol misuse, this is not the case for most personnel serving around the start of the conflict in Iraq in 2003.

Researchers followed the alcohol use of over 7,000 UK serving and ex-serving personnel between 2004 and 2016, finding that only 5% of participants successfully managed to improve their relationship with alcohol the 12 year period. This group had the highest levels of drinking among the sample, showing that it is possible to make changes even when drinking is severe, yet they remained drinking at levels that might be hazardous.

There were a number of risk factors associated with the higher levels of alcohol misuse in the current study. These included being young, single and serving in the Army (compared to their counterparts in the Royal Navy or RAF), experiencing childhood difficulties and probable Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The researchers say that these findings signal the importance of cultures of drinking in service, as well as the possible personal difficulties that lead individuals to drink.

“The Armed Forces relationship with alcohol is complex. While we certainly saw a steady decrease in the prevalence of alcohol misuse, which mirrored declining trends in wider society, the picture is more complicated when you dig into the data.”

Professor Nicola Fear, senior investigator from KCMHR

The researchers say that strategies should focus upon both improving the recognition of problematic drinking, as well as interventions that engage personnel that are struggling the most.

Dr Laura Palmer, the study’s first author from KCMHR said “In the past, drinking has been normalised in the Armed Forces and, while the Ministry of Defence have started to target drinking cultures in service, many of the personnel in our study have already left and continue to drink at harmful levels.

“It is crucial that support both in and out of service is available to help individuals notice when drinking might be becoming a problem for their health, relationships and quality of life”.


Trajectories of alcohol misuse among the UK Armed Forces over a 12-year period (DOI10.1111/add.15592) (Laura Palmer, Sam Norton, Margaret Jones, Roberto J. Rona, Laura Goodwin, Nicola T. Fear) was published in Addiction

For more information, please contact Patrick O’Brien (Senior Media Officer)


In this story

Nicola Fear

Professor of Epidemiology

Professor of Public Health Medicine

Sam Norton

Reader in Research Methods and Statistics