Why wine raises tricky problems for tackling excess drinking

Blooming Beaujolais. Jirateep Sancote

Is it time to cut down? East Dunbartonshire, a local authority just north of Glasgow in Scotland, is launching a simple initiative to encourage people to drink less. One hundred licensed premises have agreed to ensure that they offer wine in small 125ml glasses alongside their medium (175ml) and large (250ml) measures, taking us back to the days when this quantity was the standard measure that was on sale.

Will it work? The UK, and Scotland in particular, is certainly much keener on wine than it used to be. We drink 19% more of it per adult than in England and Wales, having more than doubled our consumption between 1994 and 2014 (it’s up by about a third south of the border, having dropped a little in the past six years). Wine accounts for 31% of Scottish alcohol purchases, and we consume over four-fifths of it at home, meaning that the quantities we pour are very much under our own control.

This is obviously a problem for any initiative focused on the pub trade. The participating licensed premises could help stretch the benefits of the scheme by offering a translation of what a unit of alcohol means in the home setting, but it’s far from straightforward.

Unit confusion

The UK advice is that we should restrict our daily drinking to two to three units of alcohol for women and three to four units for men, but there is plenty of evidence to show that the public are confused by what exactly a “unit” means in relation to wine. In the 2013 Scottish Social Attitudes survey, for example, only half of adults correctly identified the number of units in a glass of wine, while only one in five knew the correct number in a bottle. Only around 40% of men and women could correctly recall the recommended daily consumption limits for their gender.

‘Supersize me’ Jarp2

For some alcoholic drinks, it’s less confusing. For instance a pint of beer is typically two units and a half pint is typically one unit, while most spirit drinkers are probably aware that a spirit shot is one unit. These standard sizes provide a useful visual communication of the unit volume, subtly aiding drinkers trying to consume within the guidelines. It’s particularly useful for beer, where almost half is consumed in licensed premises. Like wine, spirits are mainly sold in shops, but at least they mostly have the same alcohol content.

Wine varies so much in alcohol content that it’s confusing enough in pubs – many of whom either currently don’t sell a 125ml glass or fail to make it clearly available on their menus. Meanwhile domestic wine glasses come in numerous shapes and sizes, and the fact that we normally drink wine at home means we are likely to continually top up our glass.

Guideline grumbles

There are also other caveats. The current responsible drinking guidelines have been under debate lately. It’s become apparent that the “one size” of message does not fit all. We ought to make distinctions between younger and older drinkers, those wishing to become pregnant, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and so forth. The Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests that over-65s should not drink more than 1.5 units a day, for instance.

‘Enough already’ Budimir Jevtic

When you look at the three wine measures on sale in the East Dunbartonshire pilot, you realise the problems this causes in practice. Suppose a bottle has 12% alcohol content. For the three glass sizes potentially for sale in East Dunbartonshire pubs, it translates as follows: 125ml = 1.5 units, 175ml = 2.1 units and 250ml = 3 units. But for a 14% wine, the biggest glass contains 3.5 units, meaning it is above the daily limit for all women. Even the smallest glass of this stronger wine exceeds the alcohol intake recommended for all over-65s.

It is obviously impractical to propose that wine be sold in one-unit volumes equivalent to the shot and half pint of beer, but the volumes currently sold in pubs are not helping. We could make the 125ml glass the standard pub measure for wine rather than designating it as the small glass. Alongside this, we could promote the phrase “125 equals one point five”.

And while it’s all very well having lots of licensed premises selling smaller wine measures, you need to make sure they are sold at proportionate prices. Should the 250ml glass represent better value, this sort of scheme may backfire. Making sure the scheme is promoted properly in each pub is also important.

In sum, the East Dunbartonshire scheme is undoubtedly useful publicity in Scotland’s efforts to reduce the harms associated with alcohol. Once the effects have been evaluated, it will be interesting to see the results.