Awareness of drinking guidelines ‘shockingly low’

Colin Shevills, director of Balance, the North East Alcohol Office.
Colin Shevills, director of Balance, the North East Alcohol Office.

New figures released today show that less than one in five people in the North East are aware of weekly alcohol guidelines, exactly two years since they were launched.

They also reveal that just one in 20 adults are aware of the official advice that children should drink nothing before 15, meaning parents are not equipped with the right information to keep their children safe from alcohol harm.

The figures come from Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, which surveyed the public on their attitudes to alcohol in September 2017.

The low-risk weekly drinking guideline for adults is 14 units a week – around six pints of four per cent beer, or six medium glasses of wine.

While awareness of the alcohol guidelines for both adults and children is low, the Balance survey found that there is an appetite among the public for greater information on the risks linked with drinking, with high levels of support for the inclusion of warning messages on alcohol labels.

Eight out of 10 people want alcohol labels to include the weekly guidelines, and a warning that exceeding the guidelines can damage your health. Eight out of ten people also wanted labels to include a warning that alcohol is linked with cancer.

Colin Shevills, director of Balance, said: “Awareness of these guidelines is shockingly low and we know many people who drink at higher levels consider themselves to be moderate drinkers.

“It is a failing of the Government and the alcohol industry not to have publicised these low-risk limits two years on.

“We carried out a brief review of product labels last year and found only one of 300 carrying the new guidelines.

“It means hundreds of thousands of people are putting their health at risk while potentially remaining unaware of the guidelines and the reasons for following them. The public have a right to know these facts so they can make informed decisions.”

For children, the official advice is that an alcohol-free childhood is best, due to evidence of a wide range of short-term and long-term harms linked to children’s drinking. In England, the Chief Medical Officer says that if children do try alcohol, they should be at least 15 years old, and be in a supervised environment.

Balance says the recommendation that an alcohol-free childhood is best is based on the fact that young people are physically unable to tolerate alcohol as well as adults, and young people who drink are more likely to engage in unsafe sex, try drugs and fall behind in school.

In addition, the younger someone starts drinking, the more likely they are to develop a problem with alcohol when they are older.

The survey found that 54 per cent in the North East agree that children who drink at home will ‘know how to handle their drink when they’re older’, and that children who drink in moderation at home ‘are less likely to binge on their own.’

Commenting on the results of the polling, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, a liver doctor and chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said that more should be done to ensure the guidelines for both adults and children are communicated to the public.

He said: “It can’t be right that only a fifth of the public are aware of the alcohol guidelines for adults, and that one in 20 are aware of the advice around children’s drinking. It’s hardly surprising that the public want the Government to do more.

“The public have the right to know the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines so that they are empowered to make informed choices about their drinking. The same applies to parents, who want to do the right thing by their children and deserve to be informed of the Chief Medical Officer’s guidance on children and alcohol.

“It is clear from our polling that the public want to be informed of the risks linked with alcohol, including the link with cancer, and that they want to see clear warning information on alcohol labels about the drinking guidelines and the risks of drinking at levels above these guidelines.

“To this end, the Government should introduce mandatory labelling of all alcoholic products, to ensure that the public and parents are fully informed about the risks.

“In addition, the Government should develop national information campaigns, informing the public and parents of the guidelines for both adults and children.”