According to a Panorama investigation, ‘Britain’s Drink Problem’, only 16% of adults are aware of low-risk drinking guidelines – a maximum of 14 units per week for both men and women. With alcohol deaths at their highest level for 20 years, why aren’t health messages getting through?
In this article, we’ll consider the points raised in Panorama’s report:
• How does lack of alcohol awareness affect drinkers?
• Is the alcohol industry informing consumers about units and safe limits?
• What are the UK Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines on alcohol?
• Would minimum unit pricing in England reduce alcohol harm?
For people with a drinking problem, and those who love them, your best course of action is to seek professional help with alcohol addiction. Heavy drinkers should always seek medical assistance to stop drinking.
Currently, almost 600,000 people in England are dependent drinkers, who would benefit from alcohol treatment. 20,000 patients are being treated for alcohol-related liver disease alone. In ‘Britain’s Drink Problem’, Panorama reported that fewer than one in six people are aware of safe alcohol guidelines.
Panorama spoke with ex-drinker Clare Hutton who almost died from liver failure. She was unaware that she was consuming up to 100 units per week. ‘When I was drinking, I had absolutely no idea. I’m still not clear what a unit is,’ Clare said.
Calling for clearer health messaging on alcohol packaging, Clare said it was only when her liver failed that she realised the harm. ‘I bloated up. Two days later, I just couldn’t move with the pain. We went to A&E, and I was on the bed, being wheeled up to the corridor, and all I saw was the liver unit [sign]. It was at that point I knew. The doctors told my husband I would have had ten days left.’
Liver expert, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, explained why it’s possible for people like Clare to be unaware of liver damage. ‘The liver has got fantastic reserves, so you can appear perfectly normal with about 10% of your liver working,’ Gilmore said. ‘Then the first thing they [people with liver failure] know is they go yellow. They go jaundiced and they’re in liver failure. Sometimes these people can die within weeks.’
In his role as a consultant at Royal Liverpool University Hospital, Gilmore told Panorama that he sees people in their twenties and thirties, who had no warning and suddenly presented with advanced liver disease. ‘The consumption is falling particularly amongst the young – but we think those people who are drinking are [doing so] in a more harmful and destructive pattern than they were. The peak age of death mark is between 45 and 55 when people are still in their prime,’ he said.
Currently, there is no legal obligation for alcohol manufacturers to display health information, alcohol units or safe drinking guidelines on their products. The alcohol industry is entirely self-regulated, overseen by the Portman Group.
In 2016, when the UK Chief Medical Officers published their new low-risk drinking guidelines, they asked the alcohol industry to update guidance on the packaging. Drinks producers have until September 2019 to remove out-of-date alcohol guidance from bottles, cans and containers.
In ‘Britain’s Drink Problem’, Panorama checked 100 labels on alcohol products, purchased from stores across the UK. Only 14 had the correct information on them about safe alcohol limits.
In 2016, the UK Chief Medical Officers revised their alcohol guidance, following a three and half year review period. Expert groups carried out an extensive study of the international evidence on alcohol, which led to new low-risk drinking guidelines.
The UK Chief Medical Officers recommend:
– For adults who drink regularly,
• a maximum of 14 units per week (men and women)
spread over 3 or more days in the week.
– For pregnant women and those trying to conceive:
• no alcohol at all.
– For single occasion drinking episodes:
• limiting the alcohol you drink on a single occasion (though the exact amount is unspecified)
• alternating with water, drinking more slowly, drinking with food
• planning ahead – including for safe transport home.
The number of units depends on the size and strength of your drink. 14 units per week are approximately:
• 1.5 bottles of lower alcohol wine (11% ABV)
• 1 and a third bottles of higher alcohol wine (14% ABV)
• 5 pints of strong lager (4.8% ABV)
• 8 pints and a half of weak lager (2.8% ABV)
• 5 pints of bitter (5% ABV)
• 14 shots – gin, whisky, vodka etc (25ml, ABV 40%)
In the new guidelines, the Chief Medical Officers say the risk of developing a range of health problems (including cancers of the mouth, throat and breast) increases the more you drink regularly. The risk of injury rises between two and five times when 5-7 units are drunk in a 3-6-hour period.
For people who find it hard to cut down drinking, including very heavy drinkers, the UK CMOs recommend:
• speaking to your doctor
• always seeking medical advice before you stop drinking, due to the risks associated with alcohol withdrawal.
Please call UKAT today about safe alcohol detox, rehab and counselling.
In Scotland, minimum unit pricing for alcohol was implemented in May 2018. Alcohol cannot be sold in Scotland for any less than 50p per unit and retailers cannot offer promotional deals on alcohol. Wales passed legislation for minimum unit pricing in 2018, due to be implemented in 2019. In England, there are currently no plans to introduce minimum unit pricing.
Health experts and campaigners say that minimum unit pricing will push up the price of very cheap, strong alcohol, including high strength ciders and beers. Professor Nick Sheron, a leading authority in alcohol-related liver disease, said: ‘When the evidence has been studied, minimum unit pricing is the most effective way to reduce alcohol-related harm.’
Many drinks companies are against minimum unit pricing for alcohol. They say it will unfairly punish people on low incomes and it’s unclear if it will reduce harm.
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