Government and the alcohol industry are failing to provide drinkers with the information they need to make the right choices about alcohol – both for themselves and for their children.

New figures released today show that only 16% people are aware of the weekly alcohol guidelines, 2 years after the guidelines were announced.
They also reveal that parents are not equipped with the right information to keep their children safe from alcohol harm, with fewer than 1 in 20 aware of the official advice on children’s drinking.

The figures come from the Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA), who surveyed the UK public on their attitudes to alcohol in September 2017.
The low-risk weekly drinking guideline for adults is 14 units a week – around 6 pints of 4% beer, or 6 medium glasses of wine. This guideline was announced by the UK’s Chief Medical Officers in January 2016.

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.

The recommendation that an alcohol-free childhood free 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.

This goes against the commonly held view that allowing children to drink at home at a young age will teach them to be responsible drinkers when they are adults. The AHA survey found that this view was common, with 6 in 10 people agreeing 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.’

Whilst awareness of the alcohol guidelines for both adults and children is low, the AHA’s 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.

80% of people also want labels to include a warning that alcohol is linked with cancer. Alcohol is known to be linked with at least seven types of cancer, and has been classed as a class 1 carcinogen, along with tobacco, by the UN-linked International Agency for Research on Cancer. The alcohol industry has been found to mislead the public on this link, by denying or distracting away from it*, and industry bodies recently lobbied successfully in Canada to have a trial of cancer labels on alcohol products halted.

Commenting on the results of the AHA’s polling, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the AHA, said that more should be done to ensure the guidelines for both adults and children are communicated to the public. He said:

‘It is really disappointing that only 16% of the public are aware of the alcohol guidelines for adults, and that fewer than 1 in 20 are aware of the advice around children’s drinking.

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 Officers’ 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.’

Commenting on the survey’s findings around alcohol and cancer, Caroline Moye, Head of World Cancer Research Fund UK (WCRF UK), said:

‘AHA’s new research shows a clear public call for alcohol product labels to carry a warning about the link between alcohol and cancer, and the Government should put these warning labels in place. Government cannot leave the communication of cancer risks to the alcohol industry.

‘For anyone who drinks alcohol, we recommend they stay within the weekly guideline of 14 units a week, though abstaining from alcohol altogether will reduce their cancer risk even more. We have many tips for cutting down on alcohol, including drinking out of smaller glasses, diluting drinks such as swapping pints for a spritzer and aiming to keep at least a few days each week alcohol-free. People can get more information about our Cancer Prevention Recommendations at https://www.wcrf-uk.org/uk/preventing-cancer/cancer-prevention-recommendations.’

Notes to editors

The AHA’s polling was carried out in September 2017. 2,000 people across the UK (1,671 in England, 165 in Scotland, 110 in Wales and 54 in Northern Ireland) were surveyed on the AHA’s behalf by the national polling company OnePoll, and the results were then weighted to ensure they are nationally representative.

OnePoll works according to the Market Research Society’s code of conduct. This code helped ensure, for example, that none of the survey questions could be considered as leading.
Key statistics from the polling include:

  • Only 16% of people are aware of the low-risk weekly drinking guideline of 14 units
  • Only 3% of people are aware of the guidance that an alcohol-free childhood is best
  • Only 10% of people mention cancer when asked which diseases and illnesses are linked to alcohol
  • 81% believe the weekly guidelines should appear on alcohol labels
  • 78% believe labels should include a warning that exceeding the guidelines can damage your health
  • 77% of people support a cancer warning on alcohol product labels
  • 73% believe labels should include calorie information
  • 55% of people believe that ‘providing children with alcohol in a supervised situation will ensure that they know how to handle drinking when they’re older’.
  • 57% of people believe that ‘children that drink alcohol in moderation with their own family are less likely to binge on their own’.
  • 77% of people believe that the UK has an ‘unhealthy’ relationship with alcohol
  • 52% think that the government is not doing enough to tackle the problems with alcohol in society

*Research on how the alcohol industry deny and distort the evidence around alcohol and cancer can be found in Pettigrew, M. et al. (2017), How alcohol industry organisations mislead the public about alcohol and cancer. Drug and Alcohol Review, 7 September 2017. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/dar.12596/abstract