On the 8th of January, Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, unveiled new alcohol consumption guidelines for the first time in over 20 years.

The guidelines, based on the latest medical evidence, have changed from a daily limit – 3 to 4 units per day for men and 2 to 3 units per day for women – to a weekly limit of 14 units for both men and women. Beyond simply reducing the quantity of alcoholic consumption that can be considered risk free, consuming more than 14 units a week is expected to cause an “overall lifetime risk of death by approximately 1%”.

The weekly, rather than daily guideline has been imposed in order to dispel the notion that you can drink every day and do so safely.

These new guidelines prompted much discussion in the Trajectory office, becoming the topic for the February edition of the Trajectory Trends Breakfast, titled ‘Alcohol: Hangovers, Headaches, and Health’. While it is not the place of social researchers to question the respective medical merits of these guidelines, we are well situated to explore the implications of these guidelines both for consumer behaviour and for industry – and how these implications are situated within the wider role that alcohol plays in society.

Alcohol’s role in society has changed drastically in the last ten years. While ‘Booze Britain’ rears its ugly head once in a while – as the above photo of revellers in Manchester on New Year’s Eve shows – young people are far more likely to have abstained from alcohol entirely in the week prior to being asked than they are to have drunk to excess, and as a society the UK drinks substantially less per capita than at its peak in the mid-Naughties.

Alcohol misuse remains a problem in the United Kingdom, costing the NHS £3.5 billion per year, but with the masses consuming far less alcohol than in previous years, we are left to wonder just how much impact these guidelines will have.

Indeed, data from the Health Survey for England shows that in 2014 just 16% of women drank beyond the lower limit of the 1995 guidelines – which, handily, equates to 14 units per week – and this figure puts into perspective the small size of the group for whom adherence to the new guidelines would mean a behavioural change.

Furthermore, data from our global attitudes and values survey, Trajectory Global Foresight (below), shows that in addition to the dwindling number of people for whom new guidelines would require behavioural change, the British public is becoming increasingly unlikely to agree that individuals should be encouraged to eat and drink more healthily through public health campaigns.

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Decreasing receptivity to public health messaging is not the largest problem faced in the imposition of these guidelines however, but rather the inability of these messages to alter behaviour. In releasing the revised guidelines the acknowledgement of this difficulty was made, with the behavioural expert group which consulted on the new guidelines stating that there is “little evidence regarding the impact of any guidelines in changing health behaviours”. The extent to which this is problematic is highlighted in the chart below. The guidelines released in January apply to very small section of society, and as we can see in relation to the 1995 guidelines, this small section of society is the most likely to know about alcohol guidelines and subsequently disregard them.

 

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These findings leave the notion of alcohol consumption guidelines – at least as an aspect of public health – facing quite a quandary. The section of the population for whom adherence to guidelines would require a change in behaviour is small and appears to be getting smaller.

Further, within this small section of society who misuse alcohol, awareness of guidelines is already extremely high, and yet misuse continues.

Industry may take a sigh of relief. The proportion of the population that these guidelines are for is small, and while awareness of the guidelines in this group is high, their behaviour continues unchanged. For the Department of Health, it may be time to consider a new approach to alcohol misuse. With the necessity of alcohol guidance restricted to a small group that is evidently unresponsive to guidelines, it appears that the dissemination of guidelines is misuse in its own right.