Alcohol consumption and health: Be honest about the damage, and we'll be honest about the drinking

According to a new study by academics at University College London, what we drink and what we say we drink are two very - very - different things

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So come on then, where are they? Where are the vast underground wine lake, the vodka fountain and the beer river? We hear that the discrepancy between the amount of alcohol sold in this country and the amount consumed is almost 50 per cent. Assuming that we’re all honest about how much we drink, it follows that there must be reservoirs of booze somewhere in Britain’s countryside.

Except, of course, famously we’re not honest about how much we drink. The study – by University College London academics – leads to the conclusion that around half of Britain’s adults must be binge drinkers, although only 13 per cent of women and 22 per cent of men would classify themselves as such. We’re all just such stoopid lushes, we can’t even count. Tequila has addled our brains. Obviously we’re not capable of sticking to the long-established weekly unit guidelines of 14 for women and 21 for men.

But why would we lie, knowing the devastating effects of binge drinking and alcoholism on both our own bodies, and on the NHS budget (MP Diane Abbott puts it at around £21bn)? Doctors and academics are not like employers, or abstemious friends, who will make a judgement call and/or tell others. Their advice – if they’re decent – could be invaluable. Unlike the ever-changing wisdom about red meat, coffee and so on, sustained heavy drinking is without doubt harmful. And we all know what “heavy” is, right?

But are we really to blame for not knowing – hic! - what we’re consuming? A comment in response to the study from the charity Alcohol Concern speaks volumes. “When we’re totting up our drinks total we don’t always count some occasions as proper drinking.” No matter how we do it by rote, generally we acknowledge the steadfast bottle with dinner at home every night when the kids are finally down, and the three pints in the pub every Saturday afternoon with the rugby, etc. But then there is the pub where the “large” glass is vast, the restaurant where the upselling sommelier tops up the wine before you’ve drained the last one, and the host who puts equal measures of both in a G&T.

Rather like preferring to know what exactly the meat is in that burger, if we choose to drink, we should be allowed to know exactly how much we’re drinking.

So, Department of Health, let’s quit with the tiresome DayGlo campaigns that have nebulous goals like “fit for life” and sort out two things, pronto. One, finish the current unit-measurement review and impose a sensible, universally workable scale; and two, enforce a minimum unit cost for alcohol that makes having a drink, or two, or 10 something that we consider, rather than only become dimly aware of the morning after.

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