Drinking diaries show an excess is often normal

alcohol journalThis week the BBC monitored the drinking diaries of two typical professional people in their late twenties – both considered themselves to be health conscious and fit.

What emerged was a picture of what many people might consider ‘normal’ patterns of drinking in our culture. However, when their level of alcohol consumption was broken down into units it became apparent that both of them were drinking way in excess of recommended guidelines – 37 units for the woman and 112 units for the man.

They also demonstrated a significant level of ignorance about their drinking, and about the implications for their health. One of them actually said – “I don’t like getting drunk…” yet had consumed over 15 units per session on five days that week, and 25 units (as far as he could remember) on the Saturday! That’s about 8 pints of strong lager or nearly 3 bottles of wine. But he doesn’t like getting drunk – yeah, right!

However, a survey by YouGov also found that many people have no idea what the recommended safe alcohol consumption levels actually are (14 units per week for women and 21 for men), and very few were aware of the units of alcohol present in common drinks. [Here's a very handy units of alcohol calculator]

The thing which strikes you when you read the two diaries is that there are many people around drinking exactly the same amounts, yet believing that they don’t have a problem with alcohol.

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Binge drinking epidemic says BMA

too much drinkingThe British Medical Association released a report last week that the UK is currently experiencing an alcohol epidemic. Hospital admissions due to alcohol are increasing dramatically (5% increase over a year), and alcohol related crime is going up by about 7 percent per year according to local government figures.

Why do so many people in the UK feel the need to binge drink? It’s not about increased accessibility since the change in the licensing laws or even the low cost of a drink, because they are now roughly the same here as those in Europe.

But other countries don’t have as much of a bingeing problem. And we’ve had this problem for at least the last ten years, not just since they relaxed pub opening times.

Are we just more stressed than our cousins on the continent? For many people, alcohol is the only escape they have from the stress of their lives. Perhaps its the fact that we have the highest working hours per week in the whole of Europe, and that our debt culture is spiralling?

The solution some have suggested is increased taxes or warnings such as those on cigarette packets, but has that stopped anybody smoking? No, it has just increased the revenue for the government that’s all (which at least pays for increased pressure on health services).

Maybe education might help – but this is not a case of people being ill-educated about the risks of excessive drinking; like the risks of smoking, we’re all well aware. But that is not enough to motivate people to cut down. The motivation must be internal, you can’t expect someone to change their behaviour just by telling them its bad for them. They must choose to change through seeing that the costs outweigh the benefits.

Read the full text of the BMA report in pdf format.