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    England Isn't Sure Who's Drinking All the Booze It Buys

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Hey, it's only one beer! Image via Caterer's Guild

    Are you always totally honest on medical surveys? You know, like when the doctor asks you how much you drink and, rather than admit you'd had six Mad Dogs in the last 72 hours, you fess up to a lesser crime and say you occasionally polish off a six-pack and yeah, you know you should probably ease up.

    Well, apparently those little lies are pretty popular: Researchers at the University College London looked at self-reported drinking surveys and compared them to total alcohol receipts in England, and found out that a whole lot of people are under-reporting how much they drink. In fact, almost half of the country's alcohol sales were unaccounted for in the results of surveys asking people how much they drank. In other words, on average, English folks said they drank about half of what was actually purchased nationwide.

    Now, to be fair, the results don't prove there's some sort of alcohol shame conspiracy ruining liquor surveys in England. In fact, there's an alternative that's perhaps more worrisome: People might not realize how much it is that they actually drink. According to lead author Sadie Boniface, that means as many as 75 percent of English are drinking more than their daily limit.

    "Currently we don't know who consumes almost half of all alcohol in England," she told the BBC. This study was conducted to show what alcohol consumption would look like when all of what is sold is accounted for, if everyone under-reported equally."

    Nothing like a healthy glass of wine every now and then.

    Boniface's team compared governmental alcohol sales data with a pair of self-reported alcohol surveys encompassing over 23,000 people. While those data can't be used to show a direct link–not everything that's bought is drank, for one–the enormity of the gap between sales and what's reported does suggest there is a difference between what people are drinking and what they say, or think, they are.

    "The results are putative, but they show that this gap between what is seen in the surveys and sales potentially has enormous implications for public health in England," Boniface said.

    One of the big issues at hand is that people's perception of a single drink is different from the medical definition. According to UK health officials, one "unit" of alcohol is a small glass of wine or eight ounces of 3.5% ABV beer; men can have four units a day, women three. But think about what you consider one glass of wine. It's probably not "small." 

    And beer? A standard 7% IPA contains twice as much alcohol as the beer used in the recommendation, so your daily two pint limit is actually one.

    In short, it's quite possible that people's own strong pours are clouding their judgment of how much they actually drink. That's important because health guidelines, which are hard enough to get people to follow anyway, work even less well when people think they're doing things right and actually aren't.

    On the other hand, perhaps English drinkers do know how much they're drinking, and are under-reporting because they're embarrassed or something. My guess is actually the former, which is a fairly common problem. But, you know what, I actually just thought of a third scenario. Perhaps some crazy tycoon is buying up half the country's booze every year to stash in his castle?