A neat way to try to combat alcohol abuse

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The Independent Online

For all the agonising about the use of illegal drugs in this country, the most harmful mood-altering substance remains alcohol. Anything that provides people with better information about alcohol and that might encourage more sensible drinking is therefore a good thing.

For all the agonising about the use of illegal drugs in this country, the most harmful mood-altering substance remains alcohol. Anything that provides people with better information about alcohol and that might encourage more sensible drinking is therefore a good thing.

Of course, there is an element of the patronising in the British Medical Association's desire to require labels on bottles, cans and pumps to spell out the dangers of overconsumption. A list of illnesses to which excessive alcohol intake contributes, from heart disease to cirrhosis of the liver, is not going to have much of a restraining effect on young people on a mission to get out of their minds. Many of the problems caused by drink, from binge drinking to addiction, are of social or psychological origin rather than the result of ignorance about the effects.

In particular, the persistence in human societies of the desire to escape reality, and the ready availability in richer societies of the chemical means of doing so, are deep issues.

However, there is a gap in public knowledge that has immediate, practical and avoidable impacts. Most people have a hazy notion of how much alcohol constitutes a "unit", the measure used for drink-driving limits and much health information. This ignorance must make some contribution to problem drinking, not least by making it easier to deny.

As many doctors point out, it would be a simple matter to put the number of units of alcohol in drinks on labels. The alcohol content is already given as a percentage, but few people are able to calculate how many units of 10ml of pure alcohol that represents – especially after consuming some of it.

Nor would it be a bad idea to remind drinkers, at the same time, of medical advice on the limits for sensible consumption, namely 14 units a week for women and 21 for men.

There is a difference between providing information and telling people what they should do. Putting more and better information on the sides of bottles and cans falls on the right side of the line. The new minister for public health, Hazel Blears, should act.

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