Making informed choices about our drinking

Colin Shevills | November 2019 | 6 minutes

During Alcohol Awareness Week, headlines suggesting that the average Brit gets through 108 bottles of wine a year – more than most of the developed world – should give us pause for thought.

Sadly these figures are not a surprise to Balance. We have been working in the North East of England since 2009 to tackle the worst rates of alcohol harm in the country. We know that around half a million adults in our region are drinking above the Chief Medical Officers’ low risk guidelines of no more than 14 units a week to keep the risks from drinking low – and yet according to our surveys 9 out of 10 people believe they are light or moderate drinkers.

We know that around half a million adults in our region are drinking above the Chief Medical Officers’ low risk guidelines.

During November, we are running a hard-hitting campaign highlighting that alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer. This has been a concerted strategy running over several years – it is information that every individual has a right to know in order to make informed choices.

But as well as the cancer message, we’re also running local engagement events, campaign advertising and a quiz on our website at ReduceMyRisk.tv to raise awareness of the low risk guidelines of no more than 14 units a week. Many of us judge our consumption by drinks and yet understanding units is arguably even more essential to help people stay within the recommended limits.

While alcohol is a normal part of many people’s lives, what we have observed across hundreds of conversations is that dismissive, hard-drinking bravado may occasionally pop up on social media but is very rare face-to-face.

From first-hand experience, people's minds and attitudes to improving their relationship with alcohol seem to be far more open than in the past. When we speak to someone about how much they might be drinking, a very British light-hearted joke might start the conversation – perhaps a roll of the eyes and a slightly embarrassed “too much” but people quickly become more serious and are interested in the facts. Increased media focus on alcohol harms to society and to individuals is clearly resonating – most people understand aspects of alcohol harm in society but slowly this also seems to be becoming a more personal issue to many.

Less positively, accurate awareness around unit guidelines and alcohol-related cancers is lower than we would hope - even among health care professionals – especially when compared to smoking.

We’re inviting people to take our alcohol units challenge and guess how many units are in a glass of 250ml red wine, 25ml spirit and a pint of continental-strength beer. After four days of interactions, the first person to judge all the units to perfection was a nurse. We know that when people pour drinks at home, what people think is a double can be a quadruple and a large glass of wine can be a third of a bottle. When we reveal the amount of alcohol, it's almost always a surprise – and to some a revelation..

I truly believe that attitudes to alcohol are moving in the right direction, not just at the societal level, but increasingly at the personal level. More people are starting to listen and we are hearing more stories of how and why people are changing their behaviour. These may be small steps but by engaging people in a variety of ways about the harm alcohol causes and what they can do to reduce their risk – for their own sakes and that of their loved ones – we can start to make a difference.

I truly believe that attitudes to alcohol are moving in the right direction, not just at the societal level, but increasingly at the personal level.

Colin Shevills, Director of Balance
With thanks to Grant Cruickshanks from Charge Field Marketing