Huge Underestimate in Alcohol Consumption Blamed on ‘Festive’ Drinking
A new study investigating the discrepancy between estimates based on self-reported drinking and those based on alcohol sales has found that people often discount “special occasions” when reporting how much they drink. The study—based on data from England—found that accounting for these special occasions increases the country’s alcohol consumption by the equivalent of a massive 12 million bottles of wine per week. The finding shows that in the U.K. and in many other countries around the world, changing routine screening questions—often just asking about “average” alcohol consumption—could provide more realistic estimates of how much people actually drink.
Where Is the Missing Alcohol?
The researchers set out to determine why self-reported drinking only accounts for 60 percent of alcohol sales in England. To do this, they looked at ordinary drinking as well as drinking on weekends, on special occasions (such as holidays) and at events (like weddings). They collected a sample of over 6,000 people using a nationally-representative telephone survey, ending up with 4,604 current drinkers for the study.
The results showed that 120 million U.K. units of alcohol per week (equating to around 12 million bottles of wine per week) were added to self-reported estimates by accounting for drinking on special occasions or other “atypical” drinking periods. It’s worth noting that one U.K. unit is only about 60 percent of a standard U.S. drink, but it’s still clear that the underestimation is a significant one—by around 69 million standard U.S. drinks per week.
The biggest difference was seen in those aged 25 to 34, regardless of gender, whose weekly alcohol consumption rose by 18 U.K. units or just over 10 standard U.S. drinks per week. As you would expect, the increase in drinking when accounting for special occasions was largest in those who ordinarily drank the least amount of alcohol, with those drinking less than one U.K. unit per week mainly drinking on special occasions, where their consumption increased by almost 210 percent.
Lead author of the study, Mark Bellis, pointed out that the systematic under-reporting of alcohol consumption likely leads to an underestimation of the health risks associated with drinking. He added that, “We need to make people aware that drinkers should consider their alcohol consumption in its entirety.”
According to Bellis, other factors, including forgetting how much alcohol was consumed during a night of heavy drinking and not understanding how much alcohol is in a drink, could be contributing to the under-reporting. He also commented on another feature of the study, the fact that it underlines how big of an issue binge drinking is on “atypical” days or special occasions. As well as any drinking impacting the risk of “hundreds” of conditions, according to Bellis, the pattern of binge drinking in particular is linked to the risk of alcohol poisoning and the chance of being involved in violence.
Risks of Binge Drinking
The discrepancy between the drinking estimate and the sales of alcohol ultimately comes down to undeclared binge drinking, showing that it’s a big problem in the U.K. in much the same way as it is in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 92 percent of those who drink excessively in the U.S. report binge drinking in the past month. As well as increasing the risk of alcohol poisoning, intentional and unintentional injuries, liver disease, brain damage, cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel-related) disease and more, binge drinking increases the chance that you will drive drunk by around 14 times.
The risks of binge drinking can affect anybody, and it’s worth noting that most of those who binge drink are not addicted to alcohol. But just because you drink only on special occasions doesn’t mean that you aren’t exposing yourself to unnecessary risk.
How Can We Improve Estimates?
The main problem highlighted by the study is that questions asked by doctors, often addressing alcohol consumption on an average week, will undoubtedly produce unrealistic estimates that don’t account for special occasions. These are often based on official recommendations, and this study suggests it might be wise to update recommendations to include specific questions about drinking on special occasions. This would help doctors get a more realistic estimate of the extent of their patients’ drinking, and might enable them to intervene more quickly when a patient is bingeing or otherwise consuming too much alcohol.
The other implication of the study is that we might deceive ourselves by not accounting for the amount we drink on special occasions. Even people who claim to be “light” drinkers might find themselves drinking a lot at a wedding or birthday party, for example, and this might be allowing us to pretend there is no problem, even if we regularly drink to dangerous levels.
Understanding How Much You Drink Is Crucial
According to Bellis, understanding how much you actually drink is a crucial step when it comes to reducing the risks of heavy drinking. Like many people in the U.K. and in the U.S., you may be deceiving yourself into saying you’re a “light drinker” when in fact you’re a fairly regular binge-drinker, and this study suggests that 25- to 34-year-olds in particular may be doing so. Improving the accuracy of our estimates for how much we drink will help national efforts to reduce the damage caused by drinking, but the biggest benefit would be for us as individuals to have a more realistic understanding of how much we imbibe.
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