Friday, 28 August 2009

Too much information?

A report from market research consultancy Mintel claims that people in Britain are drinking more than they think because of “stealth increases” in the typical strength of drinks. The implication is that drinks manufacturers are in some way subtly reformulating products to make them stronger, whereas in reality we have seen the strength of many drinks such as Stella Artois, Old Speckled Hen and Dry Blackthorn cider actually reduced.

In fact, though, what is happening is a change in the mix of drinks consumed, with people moving away from light German wines to richer, fruitier ones from the New World, and abandoning milds and weak bitters and lagers for more premium beers. And it’s disingenuous to suggest that drinkers don’t know what they’re doing – in fact a major reason for the demise of the old-style cooking lagers such as Skol and Heineken was making their very low alcoholic strengths public. In the 70s and 80s, standard draught Carlsberg was a mere 3.0% ABV. Brewers for many years campaigned against the publication of strength information as it would expose just how weak many of their products were.

Anti-drink campaigners are always going on about the need to provide information to consumers of alcoholic drinks, with the result that the back of a bottle now looks like the safety instructions for a nuclear power station, but of course one of the key pieces of information is the amount of alcohol actually in the drink, which inevitably some will use to choose stronger ones. Indeed this problem, if it is a problem, could be said to stem not from ignorance amongst consumers but from knowledge.

The report is also inaccurate in referring – as many others do too – to Britain’s “rising alcohol consumption”. While it is true we are drinking more than we did in the 1950s, as Gavin Partington of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association points out, since 2004 per capita alcohol consumption has actually been falling.

And a report like this does raise the question of whether the UK now has the greatest level of ill-informed anti-drink hysteria in the Western world. In European terms, we are well down the league of alcohol consumption, yet hardly a day goes past without some new scare about the dangers of drink.


  1. Good points there. It would indeed be interesting to find out compatible alcohol consumption in different countries. Have you any firm data?

  2. We're pretty middle-of-the-road when it comes to alcohol consumption here. Some of the central European countries like the Czech Republic drink far more than we do.

    Basically this is all about restricting free choice.

    Why would anyone want to drink beers that are weaker than they already are? The strongest beer/cider in my local is 5.3% and most beers are in the 4% or less range. If you make a beer than 4% then what's the point of drinking it? Few beers are any good below 3.5% (there are exceptions, but that's what they are).

    People drink alcohol - and smoke - because they like it. Too much (by which I mean two or three gallons per day, not a few glasses) is bad for you, yes, but everything is bad for you if you do too much of it.

  3. I also believe in free choice but what is really needed is some believable data on safe levels of drinking.

  4. It varies from person to person and that's the problem. Two pints could make one person very ill whereas for another it's just getting them going for the evening. You need to use judgement on this, I'm afraid. You need to weigh up the risks for yourself on this one.

  5. As Paul suggests, people's body size and metabolism varies so much that it is impossible to define a one-size-fits-all level of "safe" drinking.

    21 units a week is a kind of lowest common denominator below which alcohol consumption is highly unlikely to have any adverse health effects. But, for most adults, particularly those otherwise in good health, drinking rather more than that is unlikely to do much if any harm either. And it is also wrong to suggest that consumption at anything more than an optimal level will result in your state of health dropping off a cliff.

    We're constantly told that we should eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but if you don't, it doesn't mean you'll contract scurvy.

    Obviously, if you are really concerned about the risk to health from alcohol, you won't do yourself any harm by keeping within these limits. But that doesn't mean to say the corollary is true, that exceeding them means you will do yourself harm, which is what official health messages often seem to imply.

  6. The drinking limits were plucked out of the air, as one of the people involved in deciding them admitted fairly recently. Health campaigners make themselves look stupid by assuming that more information on labels will cause people to switch to weaker or soft drinks. As we all know, when people make their drinking choices, the strength is usually one thing they do check. This seems to apply whatever people drink.

    The limit of health campaigners' responsibilities should be to give us the information and let us decide for ourselves.


Comments, especially on older posts, may require prior approval by the blog owner. See here for details of my comment policy.

Please register an account to comment. To combat persistent trolling, unregistered comments are liable to be deleted unless I recognise the author. If you intend to make more than the occasional comment using an unregistered ID, you will need to tell me something about yourself.