Why it pays to know your boozing limits
If you think drinking guidelines don't apply to you, you're in good company, but that doesn't mean the risks to your health aren't real. Lisa Salmon reports
Two cans of lager for a man, or two standard glasses of wine for a woman, might not sound excessive - but regularly consuming any more than this means you're flouting official alcohol guidelines and, yes, possibly damaging your health.
New research has found that many people in the UK disregard the guidelines, and often because they don't believe they're relevant to them as they don't drink every day, but may drink heavily at weekends.
The findings - from the universities of Stirling and Sheffield for the UK Centre for Tobacco & Alcohol Studies (UKCTAS) - have revealed that the guidelines are widely ignored for this reason.
The research has also highlighted how many people think the recommended number of units allowed (UK guidance suggests men shouldn't regularly exceed three to four units a day, which is equivalent to two cans of regular strength lager; one can is 1.8 units, and women shouldn't regularly drink more than two to three units daily, equivalent to one 175ml glass of wine; 2.3 units) are unrealistic, as they don't recognise that many people drink to get drunk.
While the guidelines might seem stingy, they exist for a reason, as evidence suggests that keeping within these limits means the risk of developing health problems associated with alcohol will be low.
According to experts, people who often drink just above the suggested amount increase their risk of ill-health significantly.
For example, some say regularly drinking two large glasses of wine or two pints of strong lager a day could make you three times as likely to get mouth cancer, while regularly drinking just above the guidelines increases the risk of breast cancer by around 20%, and the risk of liver cirrhosis becomes 1.7 times higher. Despite findings like these, there seems to be a disconnect between the general public and the health risks. "People are sceptical about Government health advice, and the current guidelines don't really speak to people's drinking habits," says Linda Bould, a professor at the University of Stirling.
"It's not so much that people think alcohol's not a problem - around 80% of people in one survey we did, recognised that the UK has a problem with alcohol. But when they think about themselves, they don't necessarily see a problem." She adds that the guidelines are useful for giving people some indication of where risk starts. Also, some people really aren't interested in longer-term health risks.
Bould, who is also a Cancer Research UK champion, says people's understanding of the risk factors of drinking alcohol and getting cancer are very low. And the risks aren't the same across all diseases.
With heart disease, studies suggest there's no significant difference in risk levels between drinking during at the weekend and drinking a few units throughout the week.
Alcohol Concern's free confidential Drinkline can be contacted on, tel: 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am-8pm, weekends 11am-4pm)
Cathy Hewitt (28), alcohol intervention worker, Alcohol and You Project, ASCERT NI. She says:
We believe the current alcohol consumption guidelines are based on the best evidence available, and advise people to adhere to them with two or more alcohol-free days a week.
The biggest misconception about alcohol, though, is that it is a safe substance. Alcohol causes people to experience dehydration, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, fatigue and food cravings, which is the body’s response to alcohol as a poison. Another misconception is that if you stop getting hangovers, it is a good thing and you are getting used to alcohol. In fact, this could be sign of dependence developing.
There is always a risk when drinking alcohol. Even drinking within the daily guidelines, though, may not be suitable for some, particularly with a pre-existing medical condition and are taking medication.
We are seeing patterns of binge drinking quite frequently in the under-30s, who abstain during the week and then drink too much at the weekends. And research shows that people over the age of 45 are more likely to drink on a daily basis.
There is confusion about what the daily guidelines for alcohol consumption are, especially about how much a ‘unit’ is. Most believe one drink equals one unit, whereas a standard 35ml pub spirit measure contains around 1.5 units and a pint of standard strength beer can contain 2.3 units, with a standard 175ml glass of white wine equalling 2.5 units. So, actually the daily limit for a woman is one glass of wine or one pint of beer.
The good news is most people do stick to the guidelines and, in fact, Northern Ireland has the highest number of abstainers in the UK.
ASCERT 0800 2545 123. Visit www.alcoholandyouni.com