Drinking over the limits could be much higher than previously thought, with more than three quarters of people in England exceeding the limits on their heaviest drinking day, according to a new paper in the European Journal of Public Health. The study, conducted by researchers at the University College of London Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, is the first to investigate the potential public health implications related to the under reporting of alcohol consumption.

International studies have shown that self-reported alcohol consumption only accounts for between 40% and 60% of alcohol sales, so the UCL team investigated this discrepancy to uncover the potential impact of this ‘missing’ intake on public health. They did this by correcting 2008 data from 2 national surveys to account for the total amount of alcohol sold that year.

They found that the prevalence of drinking above the weekly guidelines increases by 15% in men and 11% in women, such that 44% of men and 31% of women exceed the recommended guidelines. The prevalence of drinking above the daily limit increases by 19% in men (to 75%) and 26% in women (to 80%).

In addition, the study also discovered that when under reporting is taken in to account, approximately half of men and women could be classed as ‘binge drinkers’ (defined by the Department of Health as consuming more than 8 units of alcohol in a single session for men, and more than 6 units for women).

The Royal College of Physicians recommend weekly alcohol limits of 21 units for men and 14 units for women, while the UK Chief Medical Officers have recommended not to regularly exceed 4 units per day for men, and 3 units a day for women.

Sadie Boniface, lead author of the study, said: ‘Currently we don’t know who consumes almost half of all the alcohol sold in England. This study was conducted to show what alcohol consumption would look like when all of what is sold is accounted for, if everyone under-reported equally.

‘The results are putative, but they show that this gap between what is seen in the surveys and sales potentially has enormous implications for public health in England.’