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”

End Quote

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 121.

    And on the more serious side...




    If you are not sure of being over the limit... Do NOT drive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.


    Funny, although I have,

    I drink
    I get drunk
    confusion follows
    I fall down

    That's how it normally is for me anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    After half a bottle of Vodka I suppose it is.

    Me being short sighted an' all, no spectacles things are a bit blurred.

    By the time the bottom is hit (hic!) Who the (hic!) cares?

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    I have no drinking confusion

    I drink
    I get drunk
    I fall down
    No confusion

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    I drink almost nothing - mostly coffee, which incidentally is also a drug.
    Who are these do-gooder saints (who obviously have no vices) to tell anyone how to live ?
    Of course it causes damage, incl. the innocent but so do the guns in the hands of our 'so called' heroes. Loads more examples.
    The world is full of hypocrites and egomaniacs.
    Let those without sin........ BUT YOU ARE NOT IT.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    I agree with you Billy, we have to know our limits with alcohol.
    Being 5'3'' my stop mechanism for booze kicks in quicker than for most people - woozy head & all that - so I've learnt to enjoy a cheap night out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    I agree with others on this site; alcohol is common sense. If you're pregnant or driving next day, barest minimum or abstinence is best. For everyone else, common sense is good; enjoy but know when to stop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Too many guidelines. Everyone knows the fundamental stuff, i.e alcohol can damage your health. Whatever people choose to do beyond this fundamental point is their choice - it's about informed decisions. Whatever system is in place to measure, whether it be units or something else is fairly irrelevant. I doubt would make any difference to the average persons drinking behaviour.

  • 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 112.

    Another subject by the HYS site that has been "done to death"
    Come on BBC, get someone who can post topics that are new, fresh, and have some bearing on our lives in the UK.
    OK it's Friday, and they probably want to get sloshed in the wine bar, but it's lazy journalism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Can you imagine life without alcohol, tobacco and illegal substances? We just have to learn to live with them.

    Have them registered and impose extra tax on them for when they become ill, the money is there for their treatment.

    Those who haven't paid, despite being drinkers and smokers, should be denied treatment on NHS. Let them pay privately.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Is it confusing? No. But only the brainless look for excuses for consuming alcohol in the wrong situations. It doesn't matter how it is measured only the stupid drink too much then expect sympathy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    I realised everso many years ago that I can enjoy a pint or two of beer and then my head starts to go "fuzzy" and I cease to enjoy the drinking experience. That doesn't mean that I am drunk or even over the limit but I know instinctively not to drive in that "fuzzy" state. Usually I stick with a single pint combined with some food and then I feel totally sober and alert.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    When they started giving advice to old people on prevention of hypothermia they correctly explained it in terms of keeping heat in. It was a disaster, old people completely ignored it & claimed it was rubbish. They did (psychology) research & changed the wording used to "how to keep cold out" (scientifically nonsensical) & it worked a treat.
    maybe a bit more research is needed on drinking advice

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    1 'unit' of alcohol effects everyone in a different way. For example I am known as a 'light weight' and there is no way anyone I know would let me drive after a half pint!

    You can standardise the 'units' of alcohol but you can't standardise the effect of alcohol on the human body.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    The units are often difficult to see and understand, but one thing I do get is this: Special Brew, Tenants Super etc are 9%, that's around 6 or 7 units per can. Well over your daily limit in one can. Yet they are sold.... to alcoholics, quite legally. It's absolute madness and the drinks industry can do this. The drinks price should be pegged to the units of each drink.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    @64Slave to the System
    Self test devices should be made more available and calibrated to the same standard as the police.. we are not given the information to allow us to stay within the law.

    Police are very anti this, they say it encourages drinking & driving. I'm with you though, most caught d&d at xmas are morning after. Encourage people to test themselves & many would be shocked & not drive

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    units can be confusing, I converted my average intake carefully into units using NHS guidlines since I was aked for it every time I came into contact with health professionals like dentist, hospital etc. When I went to my own doctor & answered in units she converted the units back into a actual intake & it didnt match, so she was clearly using a different conversion table.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Debbie Bannigan what great ideas tell all the British public who drive to work they should drink nothing and what do you think they are going to do with your advice.
    Silly woman
    far better to give clear than just tell them none which will just make them ignore you completely.Thats why they advise on measures at at what strenght if thats too complicated for you that your problem

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Alcohol the evil drink is every-where dont stop drinking it Why ? because the government. needs every penny of the tax, Never mind the harm this has done to society over the years by people who cant handle it. Every one knows an Alcoholic or a heavy drinker in the U.K. units mean nothing to them.


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