Behind the Headlines

Friday January 23 2009

Women were most likely to drink at home or someone else's home

“More than a third of British adults drink over the safe daily alcohol limit,” The Guardian reported. The Daily Mail - covering the same story - said that middle-aged, professional Britons are more likely to exceed recommended daily levels than the working classes. These news stories are part of widespread media coverage given to a report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggesting that a large number of people in the UK are drinking more than is recommended.

The news stories are based on a press release from the ONS that reported the findings of two recently published surveys. These large, well-conducted studies found that over a third of adults consume more than the recommended daily alcohol intake on at least one day during the week. Another major finding was that although more people had heard of the “sensible drinking benchmarks”, only about two-fifths of people knew what these were.

The Department of Health advises that men should not drink more than three to four units of alcohol per day, and women should drink no more than two to three units per day.

Where did the story come from?

  • Men should not regularly drink more than three to four units of alcohol per day.
  • Women should not regularly drink more than two to three units of alcohol per day.
  • You should also take a break for 48 hours after a heavy session to let your body recover.
  • Pregnant women or women trying to conceive should avoid drinking alcohol.

The news reports are based on a press report detailing the publication of new data and a general overview by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The ONS provides reliable statistics from a range of different surveys it conducts (including the census).

The press release reports top-level findings about national alcohol consumption from two surveys. The first, the General Household Survey 2007, is a continuous survey of households in Great Britain that has been carried out annually since 1971. The second survey, the ONS Opinion (Omnibus) Survey is carried out 12 times a year and covers different topics each month. The report focuses on the findings of the survey, Drinking: adults’ behaviour and knowledge in 2008. The press release and survey reports are available online at the Office for National Statistics website.

What kind of scientific study was this?

The press release from the ONS features two surveys. The General Household Survey is carried out every year in the UK and includes 9,000 households with a total of 16,000 adults aged 16 and over. Data are collected each year from the households on migration, employment, education, health, smoking, drinking, income, family information, demographics and accommodation. The questions about drinking include asking people whether they drank last week and the amount consumed.

The ONS Opinion (Omnibus) Survey, is conducted monthly and covers a range of different social issues. A  random sample of 2,010 households are chosen from Royal Mail postcode records to interview. The interviews uncover public opinion and behaviour in a range of different topics. In 2008, the survey included questions about patterns of drinking, knowledge of alcohol units and awareness of current advice on drinking.

What were the results of the study?

The press release reports that the 2007 General Household Survey found that 37% of adults exceeded the daily recommended drinking levels (41% of men and 34% of women). The full 62-page report on the findings from the GHS about smoking and drinking is available from the ONS website.

The ONS Opinion (Omnibus) Survey about adult drinking has a number of findings and is reported in a 130-page document available from the ONS. Of particular relevance is that 27% of people who took part reported that they drank at least three days a week. Overall, 38% of men and 25% of women had exceeded the recommended daily levels on any one day in the previous week. Those who drank the heaviest were more likely to drink at home. More people in this survey (86%) reported having heard of “alcohol units” compared to 79% of people who were surveyed 11 years ago.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The press release issued by the ONS suggests that over a third of adults exceed the regular daily drinking limit.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

These two surveys are large, well-conducted studies of the general population in the UK. They provide up-to-date information about the current opinion and behaviour of adults in Britain today. It is important to know that the population is exceeding the recommended daily levels and these tools are a way to follow population behaviour and to assess the impact of educational campaigns and of advertising. The findings that more than a third of adults are consuming excessive amounts of alcohol (that is, more than the recommended safe levels) will feed into public health campaigns and other interventions to reduce this.

These findings are an opportunity to ensure that the public know about these recommended daily levels. The Department of Health advises that men should not drink more than three to four units of alcohol per day, and women should drink no more than two to three units per day.

One pint of strong lager is three units while a pint of ordinary lager or bitter or an ordinary glass of wine (175ml) are two units. www.drinkaware.co.uk provides a useful formula for determining the number of units consumed in a beverage: strength (ABV) x volume (ml) / 1000. For example, a 250ml glass of wine containing 13% alcohol would be approximately 13 x 250 / 1000 = 3.25 units.

Links to the headlines

Millions of middle-class drinkers putting health at risk with evening tipple. The Daily Telegraph, January 23 2009

One in three adults drinks more than they should. The Independent, January 23 2009

Adults still drinking to excess 'despite health campaigns'. The Guardian, January 23 2009

A third 'drink over daily limit'. BBC News, January 23 2009

Secret middle-class drinkers exposed: Professional women far more likely to drink at home, claims government. Daily Mail, January 23 2009

Brits love to get drunk at home. Daily Express, January 23 2009

Links to the science

Over a third of adults exceed regular daily drinking limit. Office for National Statistics. January 22 2009

Further reading

There are several reviews in the Cochrane Library that consider alcohol. Many are assessing the effects of interventions to reduce alcohol misuse, including:

Kaner EF, Dickinson HO, Beyer FR, et al. Effectiveness of brief alcohol interventions in primary care populations. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2007, Issue 2

Foxcroft D, Ireland D, Lowe G, Breen R. Primary prevention for alcohol misuse in young people. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2002, Issue 3

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Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices