Alcohol limits advice 'confusing'
- 7 October 2011
- From the section Health
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.
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'.
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.