Level of excess drinking of alcohol 'is underestimated'

Man drinks wine while cooking Ad hoc drinking may mean we do not actually know how much we are consuming

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The amount of alcohol consumed in England could be much higher than previously thought, a study suggests.

University College London researchers compared alcohol sales figures with surveys of what people said they drank.

They found there was a significant shortfall with almost half of the alcohol sold unaccounted for in the consumption figures given by drinkers.

This suggests as many as three-quarters of people may be drinking above the recommended daily alcohol limit.

The researchers reached their estimates by factoring in the "missing" alcohol - and found excess drinking was far more than suggested by official figures, they told European Journal of Public Health.

Experts said much alcohol use went unreported, partly because drinkers did not admit or keep track of how much they consumed.

'Health implications'

The study found that 19% more men than previously thought were regularly exceeding their recommend daily limit - and 26% more women.

Total consumption across the week was also higher than officially thought - with 15% more men, and 11% more women drinking above the weekly guidelines.

The current recommendation set by the UK Chief Medical Officers is not to regularly exceed four units per day for men and three units a day for women; the Royal College of Physicians recommends weekly alcohol limits of 21 units for men and 14 units for women - although these are currently under review.

Drinking guidelines

A unit of alcohol is roughly equivalent to half a pint of ordinary strength beer, or nearly one small (125ml) glass of wine.

Sadie Boniface, lead author of the study at University College, said: "Currently we don't know who consumes almost half of all alcohol in England. This study was conducted to show what alcohol consumption would look like when all of what is sold is accounted for, if everyone under-reported equally.

"The results are putative, but they show that this gap between what is seen in the surveys and sales potentially has enormous implications for public health in England."

The team used alcohol sales data from Revenue and Customs and compared it with two self-reporting alcohol consumption surveys conducted in 2008 - the General Lifestyle Survey (GLF) which analysed average weekly alcohol consumption in 12,490 adults, and the Health Survey for England (HSE) which looked at consumption on the heaviest drinking day in the previous week among 9,608 adults.

Counting units

The researchers say they will now look at the characteristics of those that are under-reporting the number of drinks they have had, and why.

They suggest it may be down to drinking patterns and habits - those that are mixing drinks, and drinking at different venues, may be more likely to under-report.

Alcohol Concern's Eric Appleby: "Particularly when we drink at home, we pour much larger measures"

The charity Alcohol Concern suggests irregular and chaotic drinking behaviour may play a part: "When we're totting up our drinks total we don't always count some occasions as proper drinking.

"We may underestimate drink sizes and their alcoholic content, and not count holidays and special occasions like weddings, birthdays and Christmas when we often drink a great deal more than usual."

The researchers suggest that government drinking guidelines need to reflect actual consumption instead of reported drinking - especially when ascertaining what levels are associated with harm.

The Department of Health says this will be taken into consideration in their alcohol consumption review.

It said: "We already know people underestimate what they drink and many drink too much. That's why we work to help people make healthier decisions, including the recent Change For Life campaign to help them track consumption and understand the impact on their health.

"We're also tackling excessive drinking through our proposed minimum unit price at 45p per unit, tougher licensing laws, more GP risk assessments, better access to specialist nurses and more specialised treatment."

Diane Abbott MP, Labour's shadow public health minister, said: "This has got to be a wake-up call for the government and the country, because after more than two years of bitter internal rows, the government has got cold feet about its only proposed alcohol harm policy.

"More needs to be done to tackle problem drinking, which costs the country £21bn."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 676.

    "Work is the curse of the drinking classes".
    (Oscar Wilde)

  • rate this

    Comment number 675.

    A lot of people don't realise they drink too much. Middle class people knocking back the wine every second night for example. Young women getting rat-ersed every weekend . It will take its toll. Increased risk of liver disease, breast cancer etc etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 674.

    It's a small wonder the population at large are sober enough to take part in this discussion......

  • rate this

    Comment number 673.

    I wonder how many under 18's were surveyed..? Clearly they weren't polled as I've absolutely no doubt that the under-age drinkers make a massive contibution to these sales. Then on the flip side, what about the ferry runs to France dodging the tax's...
    Not a survey but a a witch hunt by the state trying enslave us by making us pay more, work longer and deny us access to the welfare we paid for

  • rate this

    Comment number 672.

    I seem to remember an interview with a chap who was on the panel that set the limits saying that they picked a level that was half of what was actually medically safe as it "sounded too high". In that case we may be drinking the OK amount.
    It is the way we are drinking that is the problem, binge drinking overloads our systems. Educate drinkers into "steady" drinking not binge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 671.

    Bogus statistics cooked-up by the morality police.
    The do-gooders have turned my country into a multicultural haven where everything costs a bomb ( chortle!)

    Ear drink & be merry.........

  • rate this

    Comment number 670.

    These 'surveys' are a complete waste. Stand outside a pub & ask outgoing people about their purchase, they will make up your missing %. Outside a gym 'how many exercise'?, 'Darby & Joan club 'how often sex' ?. You only ask 'statistic' questions to a broad set of people on the street to achieve your aim.?

  • rate this

    Comment number 669.

    Some of the excess alcohol might have been consumed by minors (who were omitted from this study), or by people visiting from abroad; neither group is likely to have been included in the study, but both consumer sub-populations should be investigated in future research.

  • rate this

    Comment number 668.

    Which is worse, the vast amounts of junk, sugar and salt laden rubbish food churned out by the supermarkets (and eaten by the stupid) or an extra glass now and again?
    Of course the ignorant will do both but given that we are not all fooled by the supermarket lies but enjoy an extra drink which is worse?

  • rate this

    Comment number 667.

    Never mind how much they drink, but be aware of the gigantic amount of fast food they consume! This processed food garbage laced with horsemeat and what not, is the real killer! Obesity epidemic has increased 10 fold in the past ten years. The study indicates that most of the obese are the sober type and drink very little alcohol.

  • rate this

    Comment number 666.

    Re 660.Chubby1, yes, we've all seen the excesses at two in the morning, but that doesn't mean mankind as a whole should be tea-total. As with driving, being a youth carries a desire to take risks. Remember also that cirrhosis can be caused by childhood obesity, and as such is pretty much indistinguishable from that caused by alcohol.

  • rate this

    Comment number 665.

    Probably, all the untold zillions of illegal immigrants are drinking it without contributing to the surveys.....or anything else!

  • rate this

    Comment number 664.

    Issue benefit smart cards if you want to see the 'night time economy' figures alter.

    Every town seems to have the same old 'benefit enabled' drunken troublemakers week in week out that cause 80% of the trouble

    How long before someone introduces the charity 'Save the British taxpayer'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 663.

    Underestimating the amount you drink is probably down to the social desirability bias.People don’t want to admit to socially undesirable behaviours. GPs know this.

    Behaviour (sales data) is more powerful than attitudes if we’re interested in an activity with strong social norms like alcohol consumption. Attitudes have more of a role to play in explaining why. http://wp.me/pWnus-6w

  • rate this

    Comment number 662.

    Level of excess drinking of alcohol 'is underestimated' and so is the patience of the electorate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 661.

    Simple solution.

    Legalise cannabis!

  • rate this

    Comment number 660.

    @659.Il Pirata

    ''...anti-alcohol propoganda, divide and rule, invent a problem..''

    What are you talking about? Most towns are no go areas on friday and saturday night, A&E depts full of drunks and victims of alcoholic-fuelled violence, ever-increasing levels of cirrhosis/liver disease...

    Ask anyone that lives in the real world and alcohol misuse is a significant and growing problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 659.

    The drip drip drip of anti alcohol propaganda. Eventually we're all supposed to believe it's the worst thing since second hand smoke. Invent a problem where there isn't one and divide and rule that's the nanny state.

  • rate this

    Comment number 658.

    This really isn't news. Governements have always known exactly how much alcohol is manufactured and sold, and that it was a lot more than people claimed to drink. To say it has enormous implications for public health is absolute nonsense. Alcohol consumption in the UK has been falling for many years, and is what it is. It does indicate that the recommended limits are probably unnecessarily low.

  • rate this

    Comment number 657.

    Unless I've missed something, a survey of 12,490 adults 5 years ago, and self reported, can surely have no validity now.


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