Alcohol Use, Binge-Drinking Higher Than Previously Thought, Says UK Study

Lawrence LeBlond for – Your Universe Online

Alcohol consumption in the UK may be much higher than previously thought, with as many as 75 percent of Britons drinking more than the recommended daily limit. And many of these people are likely consuming dangerous levels of alcohol, with the drinking habits of women easily matching those of men, according to researchers from University College London [UCL].

Publishing the findings of a new study in the European Journal of Public Health, the UCL team said previous official surveys of drinking patterns in the UK seriously underestimate the true intake because they rely on participants´ own assessments of how much they drink, which account for only 60 percent of the total amount actually consumed.

The researchers said that if the other 40 percent of “missing” alcohol is included in the previous surveys´ findings, the actual number of people consuming more than the recommended daily safe limit rises significantly.

The new study, led by Sadie Boniface from the University´s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, is the first to investigate the potential public health implications related to under-reporting of alcohol consumption.

“Currently we don’t know who consumes almost half of all the alcohol sold in England. This study was conducted to show what alcohol consumption would look like when all of what is sold is accounted for, if everyone under-reported equally,” Boniface said in a statement. “The results are putative, but they show that this gap between what is seen in the surveys and sales potentially has enormous implications for public health in England.”

For the study, Boniface and colleagues looked at data from the General Lifestyle Survey (GLS) 2008 to analyze self-reported average weekly alcohol consumption levels in nearly 13,000 adults in Great Britain. The team also used data from the Health Survey for England (HSE) 2008 to analyze self-reported alcohol consumption on the heaviest drinking day in the last week in nearly 10,000 adults in England.

After correcting data for under-reporting in these two surveys, the team found that the prevalence of drinking more than the weekly recommended limit increases by 15 percent for men and 11 percent for women, meaning 44 percent of men and 31 percent of women exceed the guidelines.

Furthermore, the team found that daily limit increases by 19 percent for men and 26 percent for women. In this daily data correction, the results show 75 percent of men and 80 percent of women exceed daily limit guidelines.

The Royal College of Physicians recommends weekly alcohol limits of 21 units for men and 14 units for women. As far as daily limits, the UK Chief Medical Officers recommend four units max per day for men and three units max per day for women.

The study also showed that when taking under-reporting into account, about half of the population could be classed as ℠binge drinkers.´ Binge drinking is defined by the Dept. of Health as consuming more than eight units of alcohol in a single session for men and more than six units for women. According to the data, binge drinking increases most in women, those with higher incomes, and those living in the south of England.

“What’s needed now is a detailed understanding of whether some people under-report their consumption more than others: to what extent does this vary between men and women for example, by how much someone drinks, or by what types of drink they prefer,” said Boniface.

This study “contradicts the claims of the alcohol industry that only a small minority drink too much, and is yet more evidence of the need for strong government action, including a minimum unit price for alcohol,” Sir Richard Thompson, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said in a statement.

The charity Alcohol Concern said that irregular and chaotic drinking may play a role in under-reporting.

“When we’re totting up our drinks total we don’t always count some occasions as proper drinking,” the charity said in a statement to BBC News. “We may underestimate drink sizes and their alcoholic content, and not count holidays and special occasions like weddings, birthdays and Christmas when we often drink a great deal more than usual.”

The UCL researchers suggest that drinking guidelines need to reflect actual consumption rather than relying on self-reported drinking, especially when ascertaining what levels are associated with the most harm.

The Dept. of Health said it would take the evidence from the new study into account under their upcoming review of alcohol consumption in the UK.

“We already know people underestimate what they drink and many drink too much. That’s why we work to help people make healthier decisions, including the recent Change For Life campaign to help them track consumption and understand the impact on their health,” the agency said.

“We’re also tackling excessive drinking through our proposed minimum unit price at 45p per unit, tougher licensing laws, more GP risk assessments, better access to specialist nurses and more specialized treatment.”

Still, more needs to be done to tackle a national health crisis that costs the country $32 billion US, shadow public health minister Diane Abbott, told The Guardian. “We need to see huge change in our hospitals and high streets: nothing short of a political and cultural earthquake,” she said.

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