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Priory expert calls time on inaccurate, and often invisible, alcohol labelling which fails to show ‘safe’ drinking limits – four years after they were introduced

Dr Niall Campbell, one of the UK’s leading alcohol addiction experts, has called on regulators to work with doctors and psychiatrists to ensure bottles and cans display accurate, current advice on safe drinking limits.

It comes after a new study shows that nearly three quarters of alcohol bottles or cans are not displaying the Government's safe drinking limits four years after they were announced.

This included one in four that were showing the wrong advice - and claiming men could have up to 28 units a week and women up to 21 units a week.

Dr Campbell, who treats patients at the world-famous Roehampton Hospital in south-west London, said: “I spend a lot of time with my patients discussing safe limits of alcohol consumption which have been established for many years as 14 units for men and women.

“To have a different message on packaging is very unhelpful and confusing.

“The regulators need to work with medical professionals to try to help those who want to continue drinking safely.”

The Government revised its drinking advice in January 2016 and recommended both men and women should have no more than 14 units a week. But the Alcohol Health Alliance – a coalition of 50 organisations including the Royal College of Physicians and Cancer Research UK – found this missing from 71 per cent of beverages.

It found 24 per cent of bottles or cans contained the wrong, out-of-date advice, which says women can have two to three units a day, or 21 a week, and men three to four units daily, or 28 units a week. Forty-seven per cent did not have any advice at all.

Dr Campbell said it was especially worrying because of binge drinking levels – with nearly half of us not knowing what constitutes binge drinking

A survey by the Priory Group 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 Department of Health's limits state 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.)

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

Dr Campbell 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."

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

“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."

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

The Department of Health told the Daily Mail: “We have been clear that the alcohol industry must reflect the guidelines. [We] will continue to work closely with industry partners and monitor progress.”

About Priory Group

The Priory Group is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK, caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, anxiety, drugs and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into four divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, adult care and the Middle East. The Priory Group is owned by NASDAQ-listed Acadia Healthcare, which is recognised as a global leader in behavioural health.

About Priory Healthcare

Priory Healthcare supports around 20,000 people a year as both a provider of services to the NHS and as a provider to private patients via self-pay or health insurance. The Priory Group is a registered and approved provider for the UK’s leading private medical insurers, including Bupa, Vitality, Aviva, Cigna, WPA and AXA PPP.

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