Reducing harm caused by alcohol

News

Consumers have the right to know health risks

With an estimated 1 in 6 Brits participating in Dry January, most of us know someone who decided to start 2017 alcohol-free.

Campaigns like Dry January are becoming more and more popular as a chance to examine our relationship with alcohol and rebalance after the excesses of Christmas. For some of us – me included – the reason for having a break from alcohol at this time of year is part of a healthier lifestyle. For others, it’s about saving money or proving to themselves and others that they have the willpower to succeed.

Although some of us may view the challenge as a one-off or go on a binge as a ‘reward’ for finishing, research findings actually suggest that very few people report increased alcohol consumption following a period of voluntary abstinence. An independent evaluation of 2015’s Dry January by Public Health England showed that two thirds of participants said they had had a sustained drop in their drinking six months on. Half of participants said they lost weight and two thirds said they were sleeping better and had more energy.

Scotland’s problems with alcohol are well known but most of us don’t think the way we personally drink is a problem. But having a few beers after work or a few glasses of wine at home too often can slip into a habit that affects our wellbeing now and stores up problems for the future.

Benefits of drinking less

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 full of calories, with one 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. Drinking any amount of alcohol increases the risk of damage to health and that risk generally increases in line with how much is consumed.

The good news is that these health risks are low if we drink within the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines of 14 units a week, spread over three days or more during the week. Fourteen units is about a bottle and a half of wine, six pints of beer or 14 single measures of vodka.  It’s a good idea to check the strength of your drink as brands can vary dramatically - one large glass of wine can contain 3 units of alcohol. And watch your measure too since we’re more likely to pour larger measures at home.  Since understanding of units is low – half of Scots don’t know how many units are in a pint of beer, measure of spirits or glass of wine – many of us under-estimate our alcohol intake so are inadvertently putting our health at risk.  

The expert group involved in developing the Chief Medical Officers’ low-risk drinking guidelines recommended a mass media information campaign to raise awareness among the public and health professionals. It’s really disappointing that, more than a year on, nothing has been done by government to communicate and explain the guidelines.

Independent health advice needed

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.

Currently, EU legislation requires more consumer information to be printed on a pint of milk than on a bottle of vodka. This is unacceptable. Consumers have the right to know what they’re drinking and the risks associated with alcohol consumption. Manufacturers should be compelled to display prominent health warnings, along with information on ingredients, nutrition and calories on alcohol labels. Polls show 8 out of 10 Scots support alcohol health labelling.

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.

Alison Douglas
Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland