Alcohol limits advice 'confusing'

Wine being poured into a  glass People have little 'specific' idea of how much they can drink

The advice on alcohol limits is too confusing according to Debbie Bannigan, head of the charity Swanswell. She says that 'units' mean nothing to many people - and the guidance should be clearer and easier to remember.

In this week's Scrubbing Up, she says that to have a daily "safe" amount is misleading and that some people - including pregnant women and drivers - should be told "no alcohol is best".

Most people think they have a rough idea of "how much is too much?", but ask them for specifics and they're not sure. Who can blame them, when the measure that is used to define safe limits - 'units' - is so hard to understand?

While 82% of adults claim to know what a unit of alcohol is, 77% don't know how many units are in a typical large glass of wine.

Ironically, 'units' become even harder to compute when we've had a drink, because the part of our brain that works that sort of thing out switches off.

And the concept of a daily safe amount may even encourage the idea that we should drink alcohol every day.

To add to the confusion, we're bombarded with new "scientific" findings about alcohol.

In the last couple of months alone, we've been told that alcohol damages the DNA of unborn children beyond repair, but that it's OK for pregnant women to have a couple of glasses of wine a week, which is pretty conflicting advice.

Reported health benefits from alcohol are rarely balanced with information about the risks, or the observation that the benefits can be achieved in other ways that don't carry any significant risks at all.

It's little surprise that people are confused about the impact alcohol can have on their lives.

But walk into any supermarket and you'll be encouraged to buy alcohol.

My local supermarket's "seasonal aisle" - one of the first things you see when you enter the store - has become a wine festival.

And the end of each aisle - the "impulse buy" space - is also stacked with cans of lager and cider, so selecting and purchasing alcohol is just part of the weekly shop rather than something that we have to think about doing.

Drink, anyone?

The people who come to us for help are just like you and me, but they've found that their choice to drink alcohol has been riskier than they expected.

What can be done about it? Official guidelines could be clearer. Other public health messages are short and snappy, like 'clunk-click every trip' or 'catch it bin it kill it'.

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We shouldn't be afraid of setting clear guidelines and sticking to them”

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They are designed to be simple and memorable, so we learn and apply them without trying.

Units don't work this way, but a simple phrase like 'one or two, once or twice' gives us a simple yardstick that drinking one or two alcoholic drinks, once or twice a week, is a good limit.

Sometimes a clear, easy to understand and safe message is that no alcohol is best - for example, for children, in pregnancy or when driving.

Scientific evidence shows that even one drink can impair judgement when driving and that alcohol affects children disproportionately, especially before they are born.

A zero limit for drivers, pregnant women and children avoids confusion and helps us all to take responsibility.

We shouldn't be afraid of setting clear guidelines and sticking to them.

With co-operation between drinks manufacturers, supermarkets and the government we can judge the risk of alcohol use for ourselves.

Not only can we reach the point where hospital admissions are going down instead of up, we can create a society that is free from problem alcohol use altogether.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Every time I read an article like this I wonder how we built civilisations, empires and great wonders of the world without all these health warnings. Then I realise the world has changed and there are some people who need to be told these things every other day or they just wouldn't survive. Evolution is a funny thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    everybody knows alcohol is bad for them, , i just don't think people will stop drinking if they all know exactly what its doing to them on the inside because its what people like to do, in fact hearing how "With co-operation between drinks manufacturers, supermarkets and the government we can judge the risk of alcohol use for ourselves"-makes me feel thirsty! please stop talking to us like idiots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    It is a refreshing change to hear someone talking a bit of sense when 'the demon drink' is involved. Yes, too much is bad for you. Yes, it is sensible not to drink at all if you intend to drive or happen to be pregnant. Yes, a glass of wine with your dinner is pleasurable, while drinking a couple of bottles would be daft. Only the killjoys use 'units' which discredits them immediately to most folk

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I think this is an excellent article. The whole idea of "units" must have been dreamed up by a scientist who doesn't get out enough. If you want to communicate with people it's best you speak the same language. Units make no sense at all. Funnily enough, I think people would respond better to calorie charts.

    A zero limit for driving is a no-brainer. It would also save police time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Perhaps an easy way forward is to only serve wine (which seems to be the particular bugbear) in 125ml glasses (1 unit of standard wine, not desert wine), which have "One Unit" etched on the side. You could do the same with pint glasses and shot glasses, so that it's easy to tell what you're consuming.

    It doesn't help those drinking spirits from the bottle, mind ...


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