Alcoholic drinks consist mainly of flavoured water and ethyl alcohol (ethanol). They are made by the fermentation of fruits, vegetables or grains.
Safe Drinking levels
In January 2016 the government produced new guidelines on drinking. The guidelines state that there is no completely safe level of alcohol consumption. Unit guidelines are the same for men and women and both are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units per week.
Pregnant women are advised not to drink at all.
What is a unit?:
- One pint of normal strength lager (3 – 3.5%) is equivalent to 2 units
- One 275ml bottle of alcopop (5.5%) is 1.5 units
- a 175ml glass of 12% wine is 2 units
- a single measure of spirits (40%) is 1 unit
These are measures of alcohol as might be bought in a restaurant or pub. Many drinks poured at home will be more generous and so contain more units of alcohol.
DrinkAware graphic on the 2016 guidelines:
Types of alcohol
Most of these have an ABV of 4 – 5.5% with a range of units from 1.5-1.75 per bottle. The most well-known brands are the alcoholic lemonades and there are also alcoholic colas, fruit flavoured drinks and those using spirits such as vodka and tequila.
Most standard 700 ml bottles of whisky, vodka or rum have an ABV of around 40% containing 25-30 units of alcohol.
Most wines are produced with an ABV of around 10-13% in a standard 750ml bottle containing 7-10 units of alcohol. Wines from hotter climates such as Italian and Californian wines tend to be stronger at 12 to 13% ABV
Fortified wines are stronger, with drinks like Buckfast and Eldorado being as strong as 17%. Sherry is usually produced with an ABV of 15-20% giving around 13-14 units of alcohol for a typical 750ml bottle
This varies in strength from the low alcohol varieties such as Strongbow LA with an ABV of just 0.9% up to the white ciders’ with an ABV of around 8.4%. A can of one of the stronger ciders contains around 2.5-3.5 units of alcohol.
Beer and lager
Most popular types of bitter beer are around 3.5 to 4.1% ABV – giving around 2 – 2.25 units for a pint and 1.5 to 1.75 units for a 440 ml can.
The strength of lager beers can vary widely and ranges from very low strength drinks like Barbican (0.02% ABV) to super strong’ lagers at anything up to 10%. But like bitter beers, many popular lagers are around 3.5-4% ABV providing 1.5-1.75 units in a 440ml can and 2-2.25 units in a pint.
A different type of alcohol produced from wood (methyl alcohol) is used in methylated spirits and surgical spirit. Some alcoholics (‘meths’ drinkers) drink this type of alcohol because it is cheap. Methyl alcohol is poisonous and can cause blindness, coma and death.
Unlike most drugs, alcohol has food value and supplies calories. One gram of alcohol supplies seven calories, almost twice the number of calories as one gram of carbohydrate. A pint of beer can supply as many calories as six slices of bread. Beer provides very little protein or vitamin and distilled spirits provide none at all.
Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream and starts to have an effect within 5 to 10 minutes. The effects can last for several hours, depending on the amount consumed.
The effects of alcohol also depend on:
- How quickly it is drunk, whether there is food in the stomach and the person’s body weight.
- How used to drinking someone is, in other words, what their tolerance level is.
- How people feel before drinking. People who feel relaxed and in a good mood are less likely to become aggressive. Some people ‘drown their sorrows’ in drink and find that they feel worse after.
Alcohol is a depressant drug. It acts on the central nervous system to slow the body down. Usually people will feel more relaxed and less inhibited when drinking. This can make socialising easier.
Some people may become aggressive and argumentative after drinking. A lot of violence on the streets and in the home is associated with alcohol use.
Short term effects
After about 4 pints of average strength lager people may find their bodily coordination is affected. They may have blurred vision and slurred speech and their memory may be affected.
Drinking alcohol makes accidents more common.Lowering of inhibitions can make it more likely that people will put themselves in sexual situations which they later regret. They are also less likely to practice safe sex.
Drinking too much in one go (alcohol poisoning) can lead to vomiting, losing consciousness and death by respiratory failure or choking on vomit. A fatal dose is around 500mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.
Alcohol can be very dangerous to take in combination with other drugs, especially other depressant drugs such as barbiturates, heroin, methadone or tranquillisers and drugs such as antidepressants, anti-histamines and painkillers. Mixing these drugs and alcohol has led to fatal overdoses.
Long-term effects and dependence
Drinking more than the government’s recommended guidelines increases your risk of developing serious health conditions, including:
- heart disease
- liver disease
- various cancers
Physical dependence and tolerance develop so that people need to drink more and more to achieve the same effects and suffer withdrawal symptoms, such as trembling, sweating, anxiety, delirium and insomnia if they try to stop. When someone loses control over their drinking and has an excessive desire to drink, it’s known as alcoholism.
Dependent drinking usually affects a person’s quality of life and their relationships. Severely dependent drinkers are often able to tolerate levels of alcohol that would dangerously affect or even kill other people.
” I was dry for almost a month but at my cousin’s wedding I felt different from the others. I decided to have one drink. I thought I could control it …… I drank without restraint for the next five days. In a blinding flash of drunken logic I saw how bad I was. It was a shattering thunderbolt. I took a handful of pills, not as a cry for help but because of the hopeless position I was in.”
N. Kessel and H. Walton Alcoholism Penguin 1965.
If you are concerned about your levels of drinking or those of someone else visit your GP.
You may also find the following organisations helpful to contact:
- Drinkline – runs the national drink helpline on 0300 123 1110
- Alcoholics Anonymous – helpline 0845 769 7555
- Alcohol Concern – The national agency on alcohol misuse for England and Wales. Provides general information about alcohol and can help put you in touch with your nearest alcohol advice centre. Call: 020 7928 7377
Alcohol is our favourite drug. According to NHS statistics released in June 2016:
- 28.9 million people in Great Britain report drinking alcohol in the previous week. This equates to 58% of the population.
- In 2014, 38% of secondary school pupils had ever drunk alcohol, the lowest proportion since the survey began when it was 62%.
- In 2014/15 there were 1.1 million estimated admissions to hospital where an alcohol-related disease, injury or condition was the primary reason for admission or a secondary diagnosis. This is 3% more than 2013/14.
- Men accounted for nearly two-thirds of the admissions.
- In 2014, there were 6,831 deaths which were related to the consumption of alcohol. This is an increase of 4% on 2013 and an increase of 13% on 2004.
- There is some evidence that drinking is declining amongst young people but increasing amongst baby boomers
Statistics for England published by NHS Digital in December 2016 revealed:
- 31 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women drank over 14 units in a usual week.
- Regular drinking by children was rare. 1 per cent of both boys and girls aged 8 to 15 reported usually drinking once a week or more. The proportion who reported drinking once a week or more increased from fewer than 1 per cent of both boys and girls aged 8, to 5 per cent of boys and 4 per cent of girls aged 15.
Making and drinking alcohol goes back many thousands of years to the earliest days of civilisation. This probably first happened in the Middle East where grapes grow wild without cultivation. Alcohol is mentioned in the Old Testament when Noah plants a vine yard after the Flood and becomes drunk. The ‘evils of getting drunk’ are recorded on Egyptian papyrus from 3500BC. The population of ancient Greece was noted for heavy drinking. In ancient Rome getting drunk was almost a national pastime but it was an offence to be drunk in charge of a chariot.
Many societies and religions have allowed the use of alcohol. The Roman Catholic and Jewish religions include wine in their ceremonies. However, the Islamic faith (Muslims) and some Christian groups such as the Mormons do not allow its use.
For centuries ‘ale houses’ and beer drinking have been a part of everyday life in Britain. Because of the lack of pure drinking water, beer was commonly the main drink to have with a meal.
In the 15th century there was concern that ale houses were meeting places for working class political radicals, and magistrates were given powers to close down houses that were seen as causing trouble.
In America, the Temperance movement had far more effect. In the early 20th century alcohol was banned in many southern states and in 1919 Prohibition was introduced, banning alcohol in all of America. However, because there was no widespread public support for Prohibition, it did not stop the manufacture or drinking of alcohol. Poor quality ‘bootleg’ alcohol was sold in illegal drinking clubs called ‘speakeasies’. These were run by gangsters such as Al Capone, and crime and violence flourished. Eventually in 1933 the law which banned alcohol in America was repealed. By then gangs (including the Mafia) had learnt how to make and sell illegal alcohol. Many then switched to drug dealing.
Alcohol is now a major source of government revenue in the UK In 1999 the tax on a 70cl bottle of spirits was £5.48, £1.12 on a small (75cl) bottle of wine and almost 25 pence on every pint of beer sold.
During the 1990s new alcoholic drinks seemed to be being targeted at young people. These included strong lagers and ciders and ‘alcopops’, high alcohol content drinks which do not taste of alcohol, such as lemonades. As well as possibly leading to more young people drinking at a younger age this may result in increased drunkeness, with more alcohol being consumed in a short space of time.
From 2010 to the present date there has been a resurgence in gin, with many flavoured varieties achieving popularity. The craft beer movement has also seen beer sales rise. Pubs continue to close down however, with CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) suggesting that 27 are closed in the UK every week.
The manufacture, sale, distribution and purchase of alcohol is mainly controlled by the 1964 Licensing Act.
There are different licences governing the sale of alcohol. Full ‘on licenses’ are granted to pubs and clubs and mean alcohol can be drunk on the premises. ‘Off licenses’ are granted to off- licenses, shops and supermarkets where alcohol cannot be consumed on the premises. ‘Restaurant licenses’ permit the sale of alcohol and consumption on the premises if accompanied by a meal. Licensing laws also restrict the times at which alcohol can be sold and consumed.
There are also rather complex laws about the age at which people can drink alcohol:
- It is an offence to give alcohol to a child under 5 years old unless in an emergency or under medical supervision (Children and Young Persons Act 1933)
- Children of any age can go into parts of pubs that are set aside for meals or as family rooms..
- Young people are not allowed to drink alcohol in a bar or buy alcohol in a pub or off licence until they are 18 years old.
- 16 year olds can buy and drink beer or cider (but not spirits) in a pub but only if they are having a meal.
- There are slightly different rules in different parts of the UK In Northern Ireland, for example, nobody can enter any part of a pub if they are under 18 years old.
- Anyone aged under 18 years old who tries to buy alcohol can be fined. A licensed vendor (pub landlord, off licence proprietor etc.) who knowingly sells alcohol to young people aged under 18 years can be fined and could lose their licence. Licenses have to be approved by magistrates and the police can object if they think vendors are not fit to sell alcohol.
- Unlicensed ‘home brewing’ of beers, ciders and wines (but not spirits) is permitted but it is illegal to sell these products.
Under the Public Order Act 1986, it is an offence to possess or carry alcohol on trains, coaches or minibuses travelling to or from certain sporting events. Police also have powers to confiscate alcohol from under 18s, if they are drinking on the streets. Some cities, such as Bath and Coventry, have introduced by-laws making it an offence to drink alcohol on the streets in city centre areas at any age.
It is an offence to be drunk and disorderly in a public place, including within licensed premises. It is also an offence to drive whilst unfit to do so because of drink. Anything more than 80mg of alcohol in every 100ml of blood is over the legal limit. This usually works out at about two and a half pints of normal strength beer for males but varies from person to person and is usually less for females.
Updated December 2016