• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 14th May, 2010

Who needs war when we have alcohol?

By any calculation the British drink too much, and it turns out that the problem is worse than is generally acknowledged because they are too ready to deny it: they drink far more than they say they do.By comparing reported alcohol consumption with known beer, wine and spirit sales, Mark Bellis and colleagues at the Centre for Public Health at John Moores University in Liverpool have found that the average Briton exceeds the recommended maximum intake by the equivalent of a bottle of wine a week.The UK Chief Medical Officer recommends weekly consumption maxima of 21 units a week for men and 14 for women. The alcohol “unit” is not a particularly easy measure to grasp, and widespread misunderstanding may explain the gap between what people say they drink and how much alcohol they buy. (Drinkaware.co.uk calculates one alcohol unit as being equal to a 25ml single measure of whiskey, or a third of a pint of beer or half a standard glass of red wine.)At any rate, Bellis’s team found that alcohol sales during 2007/ translated into an average of around 26 units a week per adult drinker. So, without taking into account the gallons of home brew, or the gallons of wine drunk on holiday and stowed away for the journey home – and disregarding also the lower threshold for women, the British are downing at least five more units of alcohol than is good for them, every week.Even that figure must be an underestimate, because it does not take into account the growing number of people who do not drink anything. According to the well respected annual UK General Household Survey, that proportion of the population increased from just under ten per cent in 1992 to 14 per cent in 2006.Why more people should be choosing to steer clear of alcohol altogether is still to be discovered, but the unavoidable conclusion must be that fewer people have the dubious distinction of drinking more.Drug use still commands more media space and time, but alcohol represents the greater challenge to a nation’s health. In England, over three per cent of deaths and 850,000 hospital admissions a year show the damage. The Liverpool based team’s calculations go to the heart of the political dilemma. They calculate that restricting the population to the recommended maximum intake of 14 and 21 units would reduce annual alcohol sales by 184 million liters. From a public health perspective, the improvement in the general well-being of the population, coupled with a big reduction in health care expenditure should make campaigning on those lines an attractive proposition to a new administration faced with the challenge of achieving more with much less.But, as Mark Bellis and his team point out in their report, there is a catch. Alcohol is already heavily taxed in the UK. Were a government to succeed in persuading its people to keep to their recommended daily allotment, it would lose about $6.9 billion a year – a high price for Ministers to pay at a time when the UK, like most other economically developed nations, is strapped for cash.The message for the ordinary man and woman in the street, rolling home, may appear harsh. It is quite possible they will be asked to drink less, pay more for their quota – and pay more again to compensate the Treasury for the hole in the accounts.See: Bellis M and colleagues,Off Measure: How we underestimate the amount we drink, London, Alcohol Concern, 2009

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