By Alison Douglas – Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland
Although Scotland’s problems with alcohol are well known, most of us don’t think the way we personally drink is an issue. But it can be easy to slip into the habit of always pouring a drink when we get home from work or when the children go to bed, or finishing a bottle of wine rather than saving the rest for another time. These habits can affect our wellbeing now and store up health problems for the future.
There are lots of benefits to drinking less, and even small changes can make a big difference. The short term paybacks include improved mood, better sleep, more energy and more time to make the most of evenings and weekends rather than suffering the fuzzy head and nausea of a hangover. There’s also our waistlines to think about. Alcohol is high in calories (but low in nutrition), with a large glass of wine containing up to 200 calories – the same as a sugar doughnut.
In the longer term, alcohol is linked with many health conditions including breast, bowel and oral cancers, heart disease, stroke, liver damage and depression.
Low-risk drinking guidelines
The good news is that these health risks are low if we drink within the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines of 14 units a week. That’s about a bottle and a half of wine, six pints of beer or 14 single measures of vodka. It is best to spread this evenly across the week rather than drinking all at once. Having several alcohol-free days each week is a good way to cut down.
The UK Chief Medical Officers published these revised alcohol consumption guidelines in January 2016 to reflect new evidence about the health risks associated with drinking, and cancer in particular.
Their guidance makes it clear for the first time that there is no completely “safe” level of alcohol consumption. The newest evidence (available since the previous guidelines were published in 1995) suggests that the net benefits from small amounts of alcohol are less than previously thought so there is no justification for recommending drinking on health grounds.
Improving public understanding
People have a right to accurate information and clear advice about alcohol and its health risks. But we’re not doing enough to raise public awareness and understanding.
Around half of Scots don’t know the number of units in a pint of beer, measure of spirits or a glass of wine. One unit of alcohol means a beverage containing 8g or 10ml of ethanol. The amount of alcohol in units is calculated as: volume of drink (litres) x percentage alcohol by volume (abv). However, many people wrongly believe that one unit is the same as one drink and fail to take into account the strength of the drink or size of the measure. This means many people could be inadvertently putting their health at risk by underestimating their alcohol intake.
While public awareness of the link between alcohol and liver disease is high (90%), it is worrying low for alcohol and cancer, at just 13%.
Right to know
The government has a duty to inform us about the health risks associated with alcohol, particularly when it is so cheap, widely available and aggressively marketed. The millions of pounds producers spend on glamorous marketing campaigns which place alcohol at the centre of a successful life need to be offset with the truth – that alcohol is a toxic substance that can create dependence and causes serious health and social problems.
We’re certainly not going to hear about liver damage or cancer from manufacturers or retailers, whose weak messages reminding consumers to “drink responsibly” or “enjoy in moderation” fail to convey even basic public health information. The government and NHS should be taking the lead in sharing scientific evidence and providing independent health advice, not leaving it to the companies which profit from us drinking more.
It is absurd that EU legislation requires more consumer information to be printed on a pint of milk than on a bottle of vodka. Manufacturers should be compelled to display prominent health warnings, along with information on units, ingredients, nutrition and calories on alcohol labels.
Alcohol labels failing to inform consumers
Research recently published by the Alcohol Health Alliance has shown that letting alcohol producers decide what to put on labels means consumers are being left in the dark. In a review of 315 product labels, only one label contained the current low-risk guidelines, some contained the old guidelines, and several showed the Republic of Ireland guidelines. There was no mention of any health risks associated with drinking alcohol, nor advice to spread drinking throughout the week with alcohol-free days. Labels did contain a symbol or text advice to avoid alcohol in pregnancy.
Consumers have the right to be informed about products which may pose a risk to health and they expect this information to come from an independent, trustworthy source. Guidance from the Department of Health recommends that alcohol labels direct people towards the alcohol industry-funded Drinkaware website when the World Health Organization has stated categorically that the alcohol industry should not be involved in health promotion. It would be more appropriate for the public to be directed to the NHS Inform website in Scotland or NHS Choices in England and Wales, rather than Drinkaware.
Ultimately – assuming we are not harming anyone else – each of us needs to make up our own mind whether and how much we want to drink. What’s important is that the health risks are made clear and accessible so we can make a genuinely informed choice.