Know your limits


by Rumbold
27th May, 2008 at 12:19 pm    

By now some of you might have seen the government’s new £10 million campaign highlighting the number of alcoholic units in drinks, which was launched because it was felt that people were underestimating the level of alcohol that they were consuming. Larger glasses and stronger beers and wines have become increasingly common, and this was an attempt to get people to estimate their consumption correctly.

There are two problems with this campaign.

The first is that one wonders whether £10 million of our money has been well spent on telling people to make sure that they actually know what they are drinking. Most people tend to realise when they have had a few, because alcohol has a physical and mental effect on you. People are not obliged to drink a particular amount, so there can be no complaint about glass sizes.

The second reason, and the more pertinent one, is that the information given out by the campaign (at least on the glossy television advertisements), is wrong. We are told that a pint of beer is three units, and that a bottle of wine is ten units. A few are, but most are not. The way to calculate the number of units in a drink is to take the strength percentage and multiply it by the volume of the glass (in millimetres), then divide by a thousand.

To take wine as an example, the strength is usually anywhere from 9.5% to 14.5%. So a 9.5% bottle at 750ml would yield 7.125 units, while a 14.5% bottle at 750ml would yield 10.875 units. For beer, the average pint (at 568ml) usually has a strength of 3.6% to 6.0%. At 3.6% a pint would contain 2.0448 units, while at 6.0% a pint would contain 3.408 units. Therefore there are significant differences in the number of units in a range of drinks one would find in most pubs.

The government’s campaign is at best wrong and at worst counterproductive, as people will believe they know the alcohol content of their drinks without even bothering to check the percentage of the alcohol. All at a cost of ten million pounds. Nor are the recommended limits for men and women based on anything other than guesswork. A woman drinking one pint of Stella two times a week is classed as a binge drinker under these guidelines. Many Britons drink too much, but that is nothing to do with glass sizes, or not knowing the number of units; it is because they want to.


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  1. Roger — on 27th May, 2008 at 12:25 pm  

    “To take wine as an example, the strength is usually anywhere from 9.5% to 14.5%. So a 9.5% bottle at 750ml would yield 7.125 units, while a 14.5% bottle at 750ml would yield 10.875 units. For beer, the average pint (at 568ml) usually has a strength of 3.6% to 6.0%. At 3.6% a pint would contain 2.0448 units, while at 6.0% a pint would contain 3.408 units. Therefore there are significant differences in the number of units in a range of drinks one would find in most pubs.”

    If you can do these calculations correctly you obviously haven’t drunk too much.

  2. Rumbold — on 27th May, 2008 at 12:27 pm  

    Heh.

  3. MaidMarian — on 27th May, 2008 at 3:27 pm  

    It’s a good article. It’s like the Body Mass Index for obesity. BMI is a total crock of sh…..

    The difficulty I suppose is that health issues are just too complex to be dumbed down into these over-simplified, one-size-fits-all formulae and there is a real risk that the thing becomes counterproductive because it looks so OTT. Throw away use of terms like ‘binge drinker’ don’t help much.

    To my mind the better route is to make it easier (but NOT compulsory) to have good quality individualised NHS healthchecks with follow-ups but the cost is going to be a long way in excess of £10m!

  4. Boyo — on 27th May, 2008 at 3:58 pm  

    Rumbold, your reference to the TV ad fails to mention that as well as a 3 Unit pint of lager – Stella, Star, Budvar, Grolsch anyone – it also features a 2 Unit pint of bitter. However, the point of the ads is clearly not to say “lager has 3 Units” and “bitter has 2 Units”, it is to get the drinker thinking about what is in their drink.

    As for the £10 million… sounds big doesn’t it, but not compared to the £200-plus million the alcohol industry spends on marketing every year, or the £1.2 billion alcohol-related harm costs the NHS.

    Your “guesswork” example refers of course to the fact that experts took a guestimate as to the relative risk associated with alcohol, but actually this is because THERE IS NO SAFE LIMIT. There is a clear upwards curve from no alcohol and one’s probability of contracting a host of unpleasant illnesses increases accordingly, which is why the experts now talk of lower, increasing and higher risk drinking.

    The truth is thousands of people go to an early grave because of their ignorance about alcohol, our consumption of which has almost doubled over the past decade along with hospital admissions.

  5. Boyo — on 27th May, 2008 at 4:43 pm  

    By the way, I used the Units calculator here

    http://www.units.nhs.uk/unitCalculator.html

    and found a 13 per cent bottle of wine = 9.8 units

    Have you checked wine volume recently? The stuff I drink tends to be about 13.5 these days – New World and Old – so I don’t think 10 Units is outlandish. And really, I haven’t seen 9.5 since my parents got out the Blue Nun in 1974…

  6. marvin — on 27th May, 2008 at 4:55 pm  

    THERE IS NO SAFE LIMIT. There is a clear upwards curve from no alcohol and one’s probability of contracting a host of unpleasant illnesses increases accordingly

    Err not quite.

    People reporting two drinks or fewer a day fared better in a 10-year California study of death rates than nondrinkers, but heavy drinkers had a doubled mortality rate, three researchers said today.

    The findings, based on a study of 8,060 people, reinforced other research indicating moderate alcohol consumption may have a protective effect against heart disease.

    Death Rates for Nondrinkers Below Drinkers’, Study Finds

  7. Rumbold — on 27th May, 2008 at 8:03 pm  

    MaidMarian:

    “It’s a good article.”

    Thanks.

    “The difficulty I suppose is that health issues are just too complex to be dumbed down into these over-simplified, one-size-fits-all formulae and there is a real risk that the thing becomes counterproductive because it looks so OTT.”

    That won’t stop the state trying it.

    Boyo:

    “However, the point of the ads is clearly not to say “lager has 3 Units” and “bitter has 2 Units”, it is to get the drinker thinking about what is in their drink.”

    When I watched the advertisement (before the red mist descended), I took from it that they were saying that a glass of lager was three units and so on. At no time during the advertisement was there an indication that these were only very rough estimates, which they are.

    “As for the £10 million… sounds big doesn’t it, but not compared to the £200-plus million the alcohol industry spends on marketing every year, or the £1.2 billion alcohol-related harm costs the NHS.”

    £10 million is a lot, whatever you compare it to. There is absolutely no evidence that if people knew the precise units that they were drinking that they would cut down. People might say that, but then they would, as it is always easier to blame something else (marketing, glass sizes, alcoholic content) then take responsibility for their own actions.

    “Have you checked wine volume recently? The stuff I drink tends to be about 13.5 these days – New World and Old – so I don’t think 10 Units is outlandish.”

    I have seen a few 10% wines recently. My point is that unless you actually look at the alcohol strength, having a figure in your head is pretty useless, as the units can vary a lot.

    “And really, I haven’t seen 9.5 since my parents got out the Blue Nun in 1974…”

    Heh.

  8. Deedee — on 27th May, 2008 at 9:46 pm  

    I appreciate what the government is trying to do though…though,(quoting from a med school lecture) something like 50% of the country’s alcohol intake is consumed by 5% of the population. That’s s real tough market to change the habits of.

    I guess then, this campaign is aimed at the one step down from total self annihilation market…erm, who aren’t going to listen cos its way too ingrained a habit.

    But wait, what’s this? Alcohol has never been cheaper than it has today (same lecture)..and ooh, we have an alcohol crisis in the UK. Hmm, coincidence?

    Gah.

  9. El Cid — on 27th May, 2008 at 11:01 pm  

    My name is El Cid and I drink too much.

  10. ZinZin — on 28th May, 2008 at 12:20 am  

    Calm down Rummy (how apt) the govt doesn’t really want you to stop drinking. Think of the money they would lose. Your overlooking the new licensing laws which allow 24 hours drinking!

    Your port is safe, for the time being.

  11. Boyo — on 28th May, 2008 at 8:05 am  

    You seem a bit defensive Rumbold. How about trying this

    http://www.knowyourlimits.gov.uk/units/drinkcheck/index.php

    to really get the blood pressure up? I would be interested to hear your result…

  12. Rumbold — on 28th May, 2008 at 7:11 pm  

    ZinZin:

    “Your port is safe, for the time being.”

    One of the last bastions of civilisation.

    Boyo:

    I am low risk according to that. I don’t really drink much.

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