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Government Alcohol Education Campaign

The latest stage of the government’s Know Your Limits campaign is launched on Monday 19th May. 

The Institute of Alcohol Studies welcomes this campaign as a small step in the right direction. In particular, IAS supports the change in terminology from ‘sensible drinking’ to a scale of risk, indicating an acceptance that no level of drinking is without risk. Whilst alcohol education campaigns have a poor record of success when used in isolation, they can form an important part of an integrated strategy to improve public health. We would like to see a lowering of the drink-drive limit as part of this larger strategy. 

This stage of the campaign focuses on the number of units of alcohol contained in a range of drinks. Research has found that there is widespread confusion about alcohol units. A YouGov poll found that whilst most people (82%) thought that they knew what a unit of alcohol is, the majority (77%) were unable to say how many units are in a large glass of wine.

One reason for the confusion is the gradual increase in strength of both wine and beer. HM Revenue and Customs has recently reviewed its estimate of the strength of wine, and found that it has been getting stronger at a faster rate than previously thought. The average strength of wine, previously believed to be 12%, is now thought to be closer to 13%. This compares with 11.4% in 1995. Beer has also increased in strength, from an average of 4.05% in 1995 to 4.2% in 2006, though the latter estimate is also thought to be a little low.

The centrepiece of the campaign is a series of advertisements for television and radio designed to inform people how many units are in a range of drinks, for example, three units in a large glass of wine, two to three units in a pint of beer (depending on strength) and one unit in a (single) gin and tonic. The emphasis is very strongly on giving people information to make their own decisions about their drinking habits. Public Health Minister, Dawn Primarolo, said, “This is a sophisticated audience. They can handle it.”

In addition to the advertisements, material will be provided to GPs, local councils and other interested groups to provide additional support for people at risk of alcohol-related problems, or who are worried about their drinking.

The units campaign will be followed by a campaign informing people about the risks associated with excessive drinking, such as increased risk of cancer, and benefits of drinking within recommended limits, such as looking and feeling better. These messages will be accompanied by information about the official guidelines on drinking.

The way the guidelines are expressed is also changing, though the guidelines themselves stay the same. The terms, ‘sensible,’ ‘hazardous’ and ‘harmful’ drinking are being replaced by ‘lower risk,’ ‘increasing risk’ and ‘higher risk.’ This draws attention to the fact that there is a continuum of risk associated with drinking and that even a small amount of alcohol increases the risk of a number of health problems.

The guidelines specify quantities that should not regularly be exceeded, where ‘regularly’ means most days of the week. The ‘lower risk’ guidelines are no more than 3-4 units per day for men and 2-3 units per day for women. An ‘increased risk’ occurs between 3-4 units and 8 units per day for men and between 2-3 units per day and 6 units per day for women. Drinking more than this is classified as ‘higher risk.’ 

The wider public health campaign will include a Youth Alcohol Action Plan, part of which will provide advice on drinking to young people and their parents. The current drinking guidelines are for adults and should not be applied to anyone under the age of 18. At the same time, the Home Office continues to lead campaigns aimed at reducing under-age sales of alcohol, as well as other crime and disorder related to alcohol.

 For more information on alcohol units, visit www.nhs.uk/units