Nearly half of us don't know what constitutes binge drinking

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With under a week to go to the World Cup, and alcohol sales expected to soar, nearly half of UK adults still don't know the Government's weekly recommended alcohol limits.

A survey by the Priory has found that some 48% are not aware that the weekly recommended limit is 14 units, a figure which rises to 57% among men.

More than 60% of UK adults also have no idea how much alcohol constitutes binge drinking".

What is binge drinking?

The NHS defines binge drinking as "drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time". UK researchers commonly define it as consuming more than six units of alcohol in a single session for men and women, with six units equivalent to drinking between 3 standard glasses of 13.5% strength wine (or just 2 large ones), or 3 pints of standard lager.

The definition used by the Office of National Statistics for binge drinking is having over eight units in a single session for men, and over six units for women.

The findings come two years after the Government refreshed its drinking guidelines after hearing "sufficient concerns" from experts about the health risks of drinking alcohol.

The Department of Health's limits - which came into effect in January 2016 - stated that both men and women should drink no more than 14 units in a week. (Fourteen units being equivalent to six pints of 4% lager, or around 6 standard glasses (175ml) of 13.5% wine.)

Previously the guidelines were 14 units of alcohol a week for women and 21 for men.

Alcohol consumption is set to soar this summer

A survey found that just one quarter of Brits plan to watch the tournament in a pub or bar this year, but the trade could take as much as £488 million in revenue.

People are predicted to spend £209 million on alcohol to watch the first round of the World Cup, and a further £88 million if England makes it through to the second. Just under two thirds of this will be spent in pubs, bars and cafes, with Brits planning to drink £128 million worth of beer, wine and spirits at their local during the group stages - despite the fact that the majority (86%) are planning to watch the tournament from home.

Meanwhile Priory poll findings show:

  • More than two-thirds (69%) think drink manufacturers should do more to warn the public of the link between alcohol and conditions such as liver disease and mouth cancer
  • Four in 10 support more explicit health warnings on bottles and cans similar to those on cigarette packets
  • More than half (54%) say the Government should think of a better way of explaining what a 'unit' of alcohol consists of.

The effects of alcohol on your health

Priory consultant psychiatrist Dr Niall Campbell, one of the UK's leading experts on alcohol addiction, based at The Priory’s Hospital in Roehampton, said: "These findings show that we need to transform the way we talk about alcohol so we all understand exactly how much we are drinking - and what it is doing to us.

"This is especially important because we all want to live longer - and may be expected to work longer - in good health. To talk about 'units' of alcohol frequently confuses people, because many think a unit is a glass of wine almost regardless of its size, and some pubs and restaurants only serve large glasses. In truth, a large glass (250ml) of 13.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) wine consists of more than three 'units', so drinking two large glasses quickly can constitute binge drinking for some people."

Only 10 minutes after having a drink, 50% of the alcohol will be in your bloodstream.

Charity DrinkAware says: "Your body can only process one unit of alcohol per hour. Two large glasses of wine may not seem like very much. But drinking six units of alcohol in a short space of time - an hour, say - will raise your blood alcohol concentration and could make you drunk very quickly. The risks of short-term harm like accidents or injuries increase between two to five times from drinking five-seven units."

Dr Campbell added: "Overall, more older people are drinking and it's a burgeoning public health issue. As part of normal aging, you don't metabolise alcohol as well. And the ability of the organs to respond to alcohol, which is a toxin, diminishes.

"What surprises most people is the low threshold that makes drinking become binge drinking or takes you over your weekly 'limit'. But there has never really been a public health campaign about alcohol in the same way as there has been around, say, smoking, and now is the time. People still don't link what they are drinking - and how much they are drinking- with their health, both physical and mental.

"'Drinking responsibly' is promoted by everyone from public health officials to beer and wine advertisers, but it's unclear how many people understand what that means.

"According to a 2017 ONS study, more than a quarter of 16 to 24-year-olds are teetotal, a four-fold increase on the rest of the population, with just one in 10 seeing drinking as 'cool'. That is very positive. Now we need to tackle alcohol intake among those in their 30s, 40s and older, because these are the people I am seeing at the Priory whose lives have been wrecked by alcohol."

Studies around football and alcohol underline the degree to which the two are interlinked. An examination of the frequency and nature of alcohol marketing references in broadcasts of the 2016 UEFA European Championships football tournament in the UK for example found 2,213 alcohol marketing references, an average of 122.94 per broadcast and 0.65 per broadcast minute (0.52 per minute in-play and 0.80 per minute out-of-play). Almost all references were visual (97.5%), with 77.9% occurring around the pitch border. Almost all (90.6%) were indirect references to alcohol brands (references to well-known slogans), compared to only 9.4% direct references to brands (e.g. brand names).

How many units? The maths…

To calculate the number of units you have drunk, you need to know the strength of the drink (%ABV) and amount of liquid in millimetres (one pint is 568ml; a standard glass of wine 175ml).

You multiply the amount of drink in millilitres by the percentage ABV, and then divide by 1,000.

For example, if you order a pint of strong lager at 5% ABV:

1 pint (568ml) x 5 = 2,840

Divided by 1,000 = 2.840, or 2.8 units

A quick glance at units in drink

  • Standard (175ml) glass of wine, 13.5% ABV - 2.3 units
  • Large (250ml) glass of wine, 13.5% ABV - 3.4 units
  • Pint of standard lager - 2.3 units
  • Pint of premium lager - 2.8 units
  • Pint of strong cider - 4.7 units

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