UK alcohol guidance has little relevance to people’s lives, study finds

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: (Published 07 August 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h4271
  1. Bryan Christie
  1. 1Edinburgh

Guidelines on the amount of alcohol people should drink are largely ignored in the United Kingdom because they are not seen as relevant to people’s lives, a report has found.

A study carried out by the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, in collaboration with the University of Stirling, found that the government’s “lower risk” guidance lacked credibility among drinkers.1 In their analysis of drinkers’ responses to the lower risk guidance, the researchers found three key reasons for the advice being ignored:

  • Suggestions on daily intake are seen as irrelevant because most people drink at weekends

  • The amounts stated in the guidance are seen as unrealistic among those who drink to get drunk, and

  • Presenting guidelines in units is seen as unhelpful, as most people measure their intake by the number of drinks.

The study, published online in the journal Addiction, was based on interviews with 66 male and female drinkers conducted in focus groups in northern England and central Scotland. It found that drinkers saw guidance issued in Australia and Canada as more relevant to themselves, as it provided separate advice for regular drinking and for drinking on a single occasion.

The UK government announced that it would review its current guidance, which has not changed since 1995, when it launched its alcohol strategy in 2012. However, no announcement has yet been made on whether the new guidance will be issued.

So called safe drinking limits were first introduced in 1987 and were revised in 1995. The current “lower risk” daily guidelines state that women should drink no more than 2-3 units of alcohol a day and that men should not exceed 3-4. This guidance has long been controversial and criticised for lacking sound evidence.

The latest study found that people’s motivation to curb their drinking habits came from practical issues such as needing to go to work or having childcare responsibilities rather than from health concerns or guidance.

Melanie Lovatt, of 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.”

Linda Bauld, of 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.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h4271


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