How much is too much? Misunderstandings around guidelines on drinking

Alcohol Health Alliance UK | November 2019 | 7 minutes

For many Brits, drinking goes hand in hand with nights out with friends, unwinding after a long week at work or celebrating big life events and keeping track of what we’re drinking can often be the last thing on our minds, but this approach risks us developing unhealthy drinking habits.

The Chief Medical Officers’ (CMOs’) alcohol guidelines for both men and women recommend that we drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, spread out over three or more days. One unit equals 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol, which is roughly a single measure (25ml) of spirits or half a pint of lower-strength beer. It is also recommended that we have several drink-free days a week to cut down on the amount we’re drinking and avoid alcohol altogether if we’re pregnant.

But according to research by the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA), only 19% of us are able to correctly identify the CMOs’ low-risk drinking guidelines of 14 units a week. Most worryingly, this figure drops to 7% for those aged 18-24.

According to research by the AHA, only 19% of us are able to correctly identify the CMOs’ low-risk drinking guidelines of 14 units a week.

Even those of us who are aware of the CMOs’ guidelines can have difficulty in keeping count of just how much we’re drinking. Drinks of the same type can vary drastically in the number of units they contain. For example, a pint of beer may contain between 2-5 units of alcohol, depending on its strength. BBC’s Panorama programme Britain’s Drink Problem also highlighted this issue, as the presenter Adrian Chiles asked pub-goers how many units were in their drinks and almost all of them did not know.

With public awareness about the CMOs’ guidelines at such a low level - as well as difficulty in keeping count of your units even if you’re trying to - it is apparent that clear labelling is the only way to ensure that consumers are empowered to make informed decisions about just how much they want to drink.

As it stands, there is more product information on a carton of orange juice than a can of beer.

As it stands, there is more product information on a carton of orange juice than a can of beer.

International evidence shows that clear labelling of alcohol containers can increase awareness of health messages and may help consumers to make healthier choices – if the labels are clearly legible and understandable.

However, in the UK, the current self-regulation system is failing to do this: the AHA’s recent report Our Right to Know shows that fewer than 10% of current alcohol labels display the up-to-date CMOs’ drinking guidelines and none contain specific warnings of alcohol increasing the risk of developing certain illnesses and diseases.

The UK government gave drinks companies a September 2019 deadline to reflect the new CMOs’ guidelines, three years after the new guidelines were launched. The Portman Group, a trade group composed of alcoholic beverage producers and brewers in the UK, belatedly advised its members to include the updated CMO guidelines on labelling in July 2019 – however, this (and the government’s deadline) are only for new stock, so there will still be a substantial amount of products with the old/no guidelines on the shelves.

There is wide-spread public support for a clearer labelling system. According to AHA research, 87% of people want to see information on how many units the drink contains. In addition, 74% want to see product ingredients and 62% want to see nutritional information including calorie content on the labels. Such requirements would bring alcohol labelling in line with food labelling and would help to address the fact that the large majority (80%) of adults in the UK underestimate or do not know the calorie content of alcohol.

While the AHA and its members continue to campaign for the much needed mandatory labelling system, those wanting to keep track of their units might like to use the free Try Dry app which is a handy tool to help you keep track of your drinking.

People should be supported to make informed choices about their alcohol consumption and they have a right to know the risks associated with drinking. Providing information via labels is a key means for people to access health information and advice at the point when they are choosing whether, how much, and what to purchase.

The Alcohol Health Alliance UK is a coalition of more than 50 organisations working together to reduce the harm caused by alcohol.