CR spoke with 2020health

Julia Manning
Julia Manning

About 8 million adults are putting their health at serious risk by drinking alcohol at levels above official guidelines, according to a new report published earlier this year.

Middle class couples sharing a bottle of wine most evenings over dinner are unwittingly becoming "risky drinkers" and significantly increasing their susceptibility to killer disease such as cancer and stroke, the report warns. They rarely get drunk, never binge drink and are not heavily dependent on alcohol. But they are still putting their lives in jeopardy.

To find out more Rebecca Duffett spoke with Julia Manning, the CEO of 2020health who released report.

Rebecca: Tell us about the Risky Drinking report and what you mean by a risky drinker.

Julia: We are not talking about binge drinkers and we're not talking about alcoholics. We are talking about people who are unwittingly becoming what we are calling risky drinkers; because they're drinking more and often significantly more than the recommended limit and therefore putting their health at risk, but they don't know it.

Rebecca: Why are they having so much alcohol and not realising it?

Julia: Because people don't realise how much alcohol is in bottles and cans and not all of them have the units on them. Even if they do, people don't tend to look, they tend to make assumptions as to how much alcohol is contained. That's where they'll drink a can of cider or half a bottle of wine and think they've only had one or two units, when actually they could have had five or six units. It really is a case of people not being aware of how much they're drinking.

Rebecca: Is this more dangerous than binge drinking or less dangerous?

Julia: It's difficult to make that comparison. As soon as you start to drink alcohol, it starts to raise your risk of certain diseases and conditions like cancer and stroke and hypertension. What I can't comment on now is whether it's worse binge drinking, or worse actually drinking excessively night after night. What we can say is that as soon as you do start drinking, your risk factors go up.

Rebecca: Are the risky drinkers a particular age group and is it more men or more women?

Julia: It's across the board. The people who are drinking the most though tend to be older men, so between the ages of 45 and 64. Also younger women aged between 16 and 24. Then in terms of demographics it's more in the north and north east of England and it's more amongst white Caucasians than amongst black or ethnic minorities. It's also more amongst wealthier people than those who are on lower incomes.

Rebecca: Quite often we hear that one way of tackling it is to put the prices up. If this is something that's going on amongst more wealthy people will increasing the price on alcohol really work?

Julia: Well other countries have found that increasing the price does work. In fact France has had a very deliberate policy of increasing the price of alcohol, to encourage people to drink better quality alcohol and reduce the quantities of it. There is evidence that increasing the price works, but that's not the only thing we're recommending. The main thing we're recommending is that people are more aware of what they're drinking and how much they're drinking. Bottles and cans should have the actual units displayed on the front in the way that cigarette packets have a warning on the front where it's clear and labelled. People can make informed choices. We also think that everyone once they reach the age of 30 should be offered an on-line assessment of their alcohol consumption; again so that they have information giving them the opportunity to be educated around alcohol consumption. We also think the Department of Health should launch a national public health education programme for the same reason.

Rebecca: How would on-line assessment work?

Julia: There are well established brief interventions. There are questionnaires that people can go through where they answer questions and they are assessed on how much they are drinking. They're carefully put together to draw out and help people realise just how much they are drinking.

Rebecca: Do you think that would help deal with the, 'oh it won't happen to me I'm ok mentality'?

Julia: Absolutely, because that is based on people making assumptions about how much they're drinking. What we're trying to highlight is that many people don't realise how much they're drinking and if they did then they'd probably cut down. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.