Health·CBC In London

Pub patrons shrug off new U.K. health warnings about alcohol

Britons should drink less because any alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer and other diseases, government health officials said in new guidelines. But many people don't seem fazed by the warning.

Any alcohol consumption increases risk of cancer and other diseases, U.K. health chiefs say

Britons should drink less because any alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer and other diseases, government health chiefs said in new guidelines Friday, but many don't seem fazed by the warning. (Vitalii Tiagunov/Shutterstock)

If you walk down most central London streets on any given Friday, you're likely to run into a similar scene: pubs packed with punters enjoying an end-of-the-week libation. Many of them are so full, the crowds often pour out onto the sidewalks. 

"The pub culture is very important," said Londoner James Hardwicke, pint in hand. "Always was, will be, always has been."

But what about the Friday that England's chief medical officer got tough on the habit, releasing new guidelines saying that not only should Britons cut back on their drinking, but that there really is no such thing as a safe level of drinking at all?

Well, to use a famous British adage, the attitude in the pub was very much 'Keep calm and carry on.'

"You hear different things all the time from the government and health people," said Gavin Norman, a pub manager who says he's not worried about the new guidelines having any impact on business. "People drink what they're doing to drink." 

How much is too much? 

The new recommendations say that men and women should consume no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. That works out to about six pints of beer or seven glasses of wine. 

For women, that's the same as the previous limit, issued 20 years ago. But for men, it's way down from the former recommended maximum of 21 units. 

Binge drinking revellers are rated as one of Britain's biggest public health problems. (Alastair Grant/Associated Press)
The guidelines also say that people should have several alcohol-free days a week, and certainly not consume the 14 units in one boozy go.

The new limits are some of the strictest in the European Union. And they're tougher than Canada's, which recommends no more than 10 drinks a week for women, and 15 a week for men. 

England's chief medical officer says the changes were made after new research showing that any amount of alcohol consumption can increase the risk of certain cancers. 

She suggested Brits turn to their country's other favourite drink instead: tea. 

"I like a glass of wine. But actually what I do when I go home because I believe you do need — many of us — a ritual, is drink a glass of tea, a cup of tea instead of a glass of wine," Dame Sally Davies said on a British TV morning show Friday. 

Boozy Britain 

Whether or not the average British drinker will follow suit remains to be seen.

Some recent statistics show that alcohol consumption is on the decline in Britain, and that young people are drinking less than their parents did.

But other trends suggest the new guidelines might not go down so well.

Consider this: The U.K. has previously been ranked among the worst in the world for binge drinking by the World Health Organization, while hospital visits for alcohol poisoning have doubled over the past six years, according to a report by the Nuffield Trust, a health care charity in London. 

The country's drinking culture was recently immortalized in a photograph taken on New Year's Eve in Manchester.

Dubbed "The Creation of Manchester," it shows an older man sprawled on the ground, bottle in hand, his belly popping out from under his shirt, while police pin another reveller to the ground. The drunken scene quickly went viral.

It might be an unfair depiction considering it was a night of the year where many people around the world might have found themselves in a similar state but, still, the level of drinking in the U.K. can be a bit much if you're not used to it, said German ex-pat Anta Klee, who moved to London one year ago.

"As a German sometimes we think, 'We're Germans, we like our beer!'" said Klee. "But in the U.K. ...they just get really drunk. I've never seen more drunk people ever."

While it's a reputation many are quick to deny, others, like punter Matt Male, admit the country didn't earn the nickname Boozy Britain for nothing.

Drinking 'ingrained'

"It's ingrained," he said, sitting at a table with friends catching the last call at the King's Arms in central London. "It's kind of part of what we do. It's like part of our way of life."

And because of that, Male, like most pub patrons, doesn't think the guidelines will change people's habits.

In fact, the new recommendations were met more with levity than concern.

"Standard Friday night is seven pints!" laughed Mark Cole, out celebrating the end of the week with a group of friends. "It's only a recommendation. You can take it or leave it." 

Even those who said they believe Britain has a problem with booze didn't see the tougher guidelines having much effect. 

"Some people have too much," said pub patron Alex Buller. "But I don't think changing the rules is going to change their behaviour." 

Nevertheless, some say it's time to break the binge-drinking habit. 

"I think women of my generation have been told or sold this myth that wine is a treat, it's good for you," Lucy Rocca, who runs the Soberistas website dedicated to women who want to follow her lead and stop drinking, told the BBC in a recent interview. 

"The health harms have been very, very much played down."​

About the Author

Ellen Mauro is a multi-platform reporter covering U.S. politics from the CBC News Washington bureau. She was previously based in London and has reported from the front lines of some of the top international news stories in recent memory.

With files from CBC News


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