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How can the public be expected to count their alcohol units when the government doesn't know how many units are in a glass of wine?

The Department of Health has updated the alcohol advice leaflet, “How much is too much?” which was first published last year. According to the official description, “Information is provided on the number of units in popular alcoholic drinks, as well as advice and contact details for those wanting to cut down or get support.” The leaflet includes the “tip” that one small glass of wine (125 ml) contains one unit of alcohol. This “fact” has been common knowledge for a long time, but unfortunately is not true.

 “How much is too much?” gives the number of units of alcohol contained in various common drinks. For 175 ml (a standard pub measure) of red wine, the figure given is 2.3 units, which is accurate if the strength of the wine is 13%, which is quite common. However, right next to this information is the “tip” that it is a good idea to use small (125 ml) wine glasses instead of larger ones, adding that “1 small glass is around 1unit, a large glass can contain 3 units or more.” Whilst it is true that large glasses of wine (250 ml is the usual ‘large’ glass in a pub) contain over 3 units, this is claiming that there is less than half the amount of alcohol in a 125 ml glass as in a 175 ml glass. A little simple arithmetic reveals that this can’t be true.

The “fact” that one glass of wine contains one unit of alcohol has been common knowledge for a long time, appearing in the 1991 government document, “The Health of the Nation.” Nowadays, when this “fact” is repeated, it is usually qualified as a “small” glass of wine, meaning 125 ml, but even this is not true. A 125 ml glass of wine with a strength of 13% contains just over one and a half (1.6) units of alcohol. In order to get just one unit from a glass that size, the wine would need a strength of 8%. This is not common nowadays; was it ever?

A key strategy outcome in the National Alcohol Strategy, stated in the government document, “Safe. Sensible. Social.” published earlier this year, is that “Most people will be able to estimate their own alcohol consumption in units.” If even the Department of Health don’t know how many units are in a glass of wine, what hope is there for the general public?