As we move into the festive party season, the association with drinking alcohol is as deep-rooted as ever, driven by social norms, with strong cultural connotations. What is more, in England, both men and women with high education and higher socioeconomic status are more likely to be ‘hazardous’ drinkers than their less educated counterparts. A damning report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that adults in the UK are consuming more than ever – the equivalent of 108 bottles of wine annually – or 427 pints of 4 per cent strength beer.
So why is this happening? One clear reason that we see first hand at Preventicum and discovered in a study by the Department of Health, shows that people hugely underestimate the amount (by 40%) and frequency that they drink which raises major ‘concerns about the nation’s knowledge of alcohol’. Of those that drank too much, 80% acknowledged the health risks but considered themselves as only ‘moderate drinkers’. This is further compounded when most questionnaires ask about ‘typical or average drinking weeks’ and don’t include increased drinking at social events, holidays and of course the festive season.
What is ‘hazardous drinking’?
A weekly amount of pure alcohol of 140 grams or more for women, and 210 grams or more for men. One alcohol unit is measured as 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. This equals one 25ml single measure of whisky (ABV 40%), or a third of a pint of beer (ABV 5-6%) or half a standard (175ml) glass of red wine (ABV 12%).
What is ‘risky drinking’?
Heavy episodic drinking “binge drinking”, defined as five to eight drinks in one session.
What are the dangers?
Liver disease is now the 5th biggest killer in the UK after heart, cancer, stroke and respiratory disease. It is the only major cause of death still increasing year on year and mortality from alcohol related liver disease has risen 41% from 1999 to 2005 – a 450% increase in 30 years! With an estimated one in five people in the UK in the early stages of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, most will have no idea that they are even at risk. The process is silent but once liver disease has developed it presents as an acute illness with 25-50% immediate mortality. Experts believe the condition could soon become almost an epidemic.
There is also increasing evidence of alcohol being an important contributor to 7 types of cancer: mouth and upper throat, larynx, oesophagus, breast cancer in women, liver and bowel. In 2016 the UK Chief Medical Officers released new guidelines for alcohol consumption which warned that any level of alcohol increases the risk of a range of cancers.
The OECD stated that ‘alcohol also contributes to more accidents and injuries, violence, homicide, suicide and mental health disorders than any other psychoactive substance, particularly among young people.’
What are the guidelines?
Unit guidelines are now the SAME for men and women and both are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week, a vast reduction on the old ‘recommendation’ of 21 units a week.
It is also recommended not to ‘save up’ the 14 units for 1 or 2 days, but to spread them over 3 or more days.
People who have 1 or 2 heavy drinking sessions each week increase the risk of death from long term illnesses such as liver disease and cancer, accidents and injuries.
Drinking during pregnancy
The guidelines for pregnant women have also been updated to clarify that no level of alcohol is safe to drink in pregnancy. Although the risk of harm to the baby is low if they have drunk small amounts of alcohol.
Working out consumption
In the past, there has been some confusion about how to work out the unit content of an alcoholic drink. The percentage alcohol of a drink is the number of units in one litre. Drinkaware have a useful calculator to help work out what you are drinking and includes the calories that these equal https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/understand-your-drinking/unit-calculator
A bottle of wine with 13.5% of alcohol contains 13.5 units in one litre or 10.12 units in a bottle (750ml).
A bottle of wine with 11% of alcohol contains 11 units in one litre or 8.25 units.
A pint of beer with a strength of 4.8% (e.g. Budweiser.) is 4.8 units in one litre or 2.73 units in a pint (one pint = 0.568 l)
1 shot (=25 ml) of a 40% tequila is 1 unit (40% = 40 units/1 Litre or 1 unit in 25ml)
Tips for cutting down on your drinking over the festive season
- Explore the alternatives: Try soft drinks and mixers alone with ice and lemon mixed in a glass, which can give you an alcohol-style taste without the alcohol. Plus, premium alcohol-free ‘spirits’ are now growing in popularity, and make a great base for alcohol-free cocktails.
- Watch your measures: If you are making drinks at home then measures poured ‘by eye’ can be much bigger than the 25ml of gin you’d expect at a bar. Invest in a spirit measure to take the guess work out.
- Opt out of rounds: Drinking in rounds means you have to keep pace with the fastest drinker in your group. Stick to buying your own drinks and then you are free to drink at your own speed rather than somebody else’s.
- Take a break: If you want to cut back the amount of alcohol you are drinking and drink with the low risk drinking guidelines, a good way is to try several alcohol-free days each week
- Space your drinks, slow the pace: Enjoying a meal as part of your evening out slows down the absorption of alcohol, so you can enjoy yourself right to the end of the night. Ordering soft options between alcoholic drinks will also help you stay in control.