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'.

Start Quote

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 21.

    At the risk of stating the obvious, too much of anything is bad for you; maybe we should all have individual licenses to drink and if you drink too much or misbehave you get it revoked or receive points on it. That way the onus is on the drinker not the seller...

  • 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 19.

    I always thought my RDA was 2 pints a day. I save these up all week, then spend them over the weekend.

    If our economy used this model, maybe we wouldn't be in such a mess...

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I agree on a zero limit for driving.

    Though it can't actually be zero; otherwise, I'd get done for it every morning, as I use an alcohol based mouthwash (which I don't swallow!) Plenty of medicines also have a small alcohol content.

    Limit needs to be set at nearly zero, so you can't actually drink an alcoholic beverage, but people with bad breath or a sniffle don't get banged up...

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The 'scientific' evidence regarding alcohol intake is anything but scientific.

    By their own admission, the recommendations were based not on scientific research, but inspired guesswork.

    Alcohol, when consumed in quantities that do not make you physically drunk, reduces stress and gives pleasure.

    The amount that is safe to consume is relative to your body mass - not 'units'

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    @1 Everything in moderation though. It's not a paradox. Also the country with the longest life expectancy is Japan, not France.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    This is typical NHS mumbo-jumbo. Fact is some people can drink more than others,your genetic make-up largely determines your level of tolerance to alcohol. They 'average' out what is acceptable then knock a bit off to be on the safe side. All these 'units' etc,they mean absolutely nothing in reality. You know when you have drunk too much and thats all you need to know. Do it often you die,simples.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Alcohol limits advice 'confusing' - Really? Maybe that's because each and everyone of us is different which means the "safe" limit would be different too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I normally let my body tell me when I've had enough alcohol. That's usually when I've passed out...

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    No, people are not really as stupid as you think, Debbie. Just lots of us decide to balance enjoyment against a small increase of risk.

    Telling us more aggressively not to drink (without scientific evidence for that) will not help your case, it will just make more of us ignore you.

  • 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 10.

    I'll drink to that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    As per most things these days, everyone thinks we need to be spoon fed what we can and cannot do. We are meant to have a brain - those that ignore sense you cannot help - the rest are wise enough to be left to do what they think is best for them. We are becoming more and more of a nanny state. Soon it will be just like EMForsters - "The Machine Stops"

  • 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 ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The stated rules for safe levels of alcohol consumption are completely useless. They are a blunt tool that takes no account of individual characteristics. Apparently an 18 year old man, 5’ 4” tall, weighing 7.5 stone can safely drink 50% more than a 5’ 10” 35 year old woman who weighs ten stone. How can the limits be taken seriously when they are so clearly ridiculous?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Flipping 'eck. People surely are not this stupid? Look at the back of a beer bottle or can and you will see the units within that drink. People know that wine is stronger than beer, and that spirits are stronger than wine. If people here don't know, have a quick google of the units in each drink. Can we stop pretending that the UK population is as thick as two short planks please?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    For driving, the safe limit should be 0, or at least lower than any single drink. Alcohol affects different people, at different times in different ways. What is deemed "safe" for me, may not be for you, but we still have the same legal limit. Units just confuse the matter

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Alcohol is like everything else. If you enjoy it in moderation, it won't do you any harm - just like fat, salt, hell, you can die of water poisoning if you chuck enough of it down.

    There's a lot of overthinking goes on but if you stick to that rule, you'll not go far wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I'm fully aware of the concept of alcohol units but have no idea how many glasses of wine, bottles/pints of beer, drams of whiskey etc are within safe limits. Like most people I know I stick to just one (or no) beer when I have to drive and otherwise I just work on feeling. If I feel the alcohol effects then it's time to stop/go easy. A simple way of knowing what's safe would be welcome.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Really, Ms Bannigan, you would have to be pretty dumb not to understand what a "unit" is. What would you prefer? Mililitres? Fluid ounces??


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