Drinking guidelines are a poor fit with Britain’s heavy drinking habits

  • People ignore daily alcohol guidelines as they are deemed irrelevant to occasional drinkers
  • Findings show drinkers prefer Canadian and Australian guidelines
  • Research may be used to inform new policies in the future

The Government’s current alcohol guidelines are unrealistic and largely ignored because they have little relevance to people’s drinking habits, according to a new report by the University of Sheffield’s Alcohol Research Group (SARG) in collaboration with the University of Stirling.

glasses of wine

The study, which is the first of its kind, explored how drinkers make sense of the current UK drinking guidelines which suggest men should not regularly exceed three to four units of alcohol a day, while women should not regularly drink more than two to three units daily.

Leading researchers from the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies, which includes the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR) and the Institute for Social Marketing at the University of Stirling, conducted focus groups to see how the current guidelines were perceived by people aged between 19-65 years-old and from varied socioeconomic backgrounds.

The findings, published today (5 August 2015) in the journal Addiction, show that the guidelines are generally disregarded as the daily intake suggestions are deemed irrelevant in a country where most people don’t drink everyday but may drink heavily at the weekend.

The results also revealed that people think the recommended quantities of drink are unrealistic, as they don’t recognise that many people are motivated to drink to get drunk.

Researchers found that participants preferred the current Australian and Canadian guidelines, which include separate advice for regular drinking and for single occasion drinking, which were regarded as more relevant and flexible to occasional drinkers.

While participants did regulate their drinking, this was usually down to practical issues such as needing to go to work or having childcare responsibilities, rather than health concerns or due to guidance.

Presenting the guidelines in units was also seen as unhelpful as the majority of people measure their intake in the number of drinks or containers such as bottles, glasses or pints they consume.

Melanie Lovatt from the University of Sheffield, who led the study said: “These findings not only help to explain why some drinkers disregard current guidelines, but also show that people make decisions about their drinking by considering their responsibilities and lifestyle, rather than just their health.”

Professor Linda Bauld from the University of Stirling said: “This research was conducted in both Scotland and England illustrating that the findings have relevance for different parts of the country. Both policy makers and health professionals may find the results useful in considering how people interpret current guidelines and any place these guidelines may have in providing information to advise people about alcohol consumption.”

Additional information

The study was funded by the National Prevention Research Initiative (NPRI). The NPRI is a major national initiative, managed by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and supported by 16 government departments, research councils and major medical charities.

Its core aim has been to support research which is focused on preventing non-communicable diseases through influencing health behaviours such as diet, alcohol consumption and physical activity. The NPRI partners have completed four funding calls and supported 74 projects, having provided a commitment of £34 million.

The University of Sheffield
With almost 26,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.
A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.
Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.
In 2014 it was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.
Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

UK Centre for Tobacco & Alcohol Studies
The UK Centre for Tobacco & Alcohol Studies (UKCTAS; www.ukctas.net) is one of the six UKCRC Public Health Research Centres of Excellence. The UKCTAS is a collaborative network of 13 universities (12 in the UK, 1 in New Zealand) and receives funding from the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Economic and Social Research Council, Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research under the auspices of the UK Clinical Research Collaboration.

University of Stirling
The University of Stirling is ranked fifth in Scotland and 40th in the UK for research intensity in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. Stirling is committed to carrying out research which has a positive impact on communities across the globe – addressing real issues, providing solutions and helping to shape society. Interdisciplinary in its approach, Stirling’s research informs its teaching curriculum and facilitates opportunities for knowledge exchange and collaboration between staff, students, industry partners and the wider community.
At almost 50-years-young, Stirling retains a pioneering spirit and a passion for innovation. Its scenic central Scotland campus – complete with a loch, castle and golf course – is home to more than 11,000 students and 1400 staff representing 115 nationalities. This includes an ever-expanding base for postgraduate study. www.stir.ac.uk

Contact

For further information please contact:

Amy Pullan
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9859
a.l.pullan@sheffield.ac.uk