Britain is known for many things - our royal family, our long and storied history of making war with the nearest major landmass and, more recently, binge-drinking. This latest scourge of our civilisation has now spread to the middle class, according to new statistics from the, uh, Office for National Statistics (PDF link). Cue up the highlights reel:

  • 37% of adults exceed the Government's recommended guidelines for alcohol intake.
  • 43% of adults in professional and managerial households overindulge, which colours professional managers screwed.
  • 22% of adults in professional and managerial households drink on at least five days in the week.
  • When surveyed, 16,000 adults felt that public health advertising had succeeded in raising awareness of the dangers of excessive drinking.

All of which makes for pretty grim reading, really. But it's unlikely that entire swathes of British society are not going to disappear into a booze-fueled haze. Amid the headline statistics, the ONS also notes that alcohol consumption has not significantly changed over the past decade, excepting 2006 when a new method of calculating the unit strength of alcohol lead to a "statistical glitch".

However, while Britain's adults are not necessarily drinking more, they are often exceeding the Government's recommended limits for alcohol consumption. These stand at 3-4 units a day for men and 2-3 units a day for women. 1 unit is calculated as 10ml of alcohol, so a 25ml measure of spirits at 40% ABV equals one unit, as does half (UK) pint of beer or lager at 3.5% ABV and a 125ml measure of wine at 9% ABV, which can prove troublesome when the majority of draught lagers sold in the UK clock in north of 4% ABV, and many licensed premises serve wines nearer 12-13% ABV in 175ml or 250ml measures. There is also a small problem that the guidelines are based on a 20-year old best-guess solution.

The disclosure that the 1987 recommendation was prompted by “a feeling that you had to say something” came from Richard Smith, a member of the Royal College of Physicians working party that produced it.

He told The Times that the committee’s epidemiologist had confessed that “it’s impossible to say what’s safe and what isn’t” because “we don’t really have any data whatsoever”.

But simply exceding the guidelines doesn't constitute binge drinking. That tends to be defined as consuming twice the guideline limits - 6-8 units for men, 4-6 for women. Put it another way: for a woman, two small (175ml) glasses of wine at 13% ABV is a binge. For a man, three pints (UK, 568ml) at 5% is a binge.

It is possible that the definition of binge drinking has been widened so far as to be meaningless. John Aitch, a recovering alcoholic, suggests that the guidelines themselves are essentially useless.

Why do they waste their time and ours on this nonsense? Statistics, advice, guidance, warnings, threats and general interference don't do much more than irritate everyone, since those who choose what they drink don't need to hear it and those who are in denial about booze can't or won't hear a word said against it.

Posted on January 27, 2009 and filed under Links, Media, Thoughts.