How the alcohol industry persuades us to drink too much

Hand over glass refusing red wine

Isobel BandurekIsobel Bandurek, our Research Interpretation Manager, shares her findings on how we are subtly nudged to drink more alcohol and why it can be hard to give up drinking this January.

It’s January. It’s dark, rainy … but possibly also ‘dry’. If, like an estimated 4 million other Brits, you’ve embarked on Dry January this year, it might be because you want to reset your relationship with alcohol, get a bit healthier or save some money. But you might also be wondering around now why it’s been a bit of a challenge – it should be easy, right? Well, the world of alcohol has been changing under our noses.

Queen Anne and her egg cups

I read a really interesting article on the change in wine glass size over the last 400 years. Back in the early 1700s, when Queen Anne was on the throne, the average glass size used for wine was 66ml. That’s about one and a half egg cups. Over time, wine glasses have grown in size – culminating in the 450ml vessels available today! As you can imagine, larger glasses encourage more drinking.

There’s also evidence that subtle changes to the shape and thickness of the glass can be used by companies operating in the food and drink sector to manipulate our drinking habits. For example, it can be hard to estimate volume accurately in a particularly large and wide wine glass. While we might be able to choose our wine glasses more carefully at home, when you go out to a restaurant, the glass size is chosen for you – and likely optimised to encourage more drinking.

New World strength

Changes to glass shape and size have been accompanied by an increase in the strength of alcoholic drinks themselves. Evidence shows that since 1990, the average strength of wine and beer has steadily increased. This might be because of consumer demand, an increase in the popularity of New World wines which tend to be stronger, and changes in fermentation methods. So not only are we offered larger volumes in deliberately designed glasses, the drinks themselves are stronger.

A further challenge for consumers is that the ABV on the bottle might not be telling the whole story. Laws in the US allow for a range of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points for wine with 14% ABV or less. This means that a bottle of wine with 14% ABV on the label could actually be 12.5%, or more concerningly, 15.5%. This has substantial impacts on working out how many units a person has drunk, particularly in the context of growing serving sizes. In Europe, there are more stringent rules, with wines of 14% ABV or less needing to be within 1% of the true value. However, research in North America has shown that manufacturers have a tendency to underreport alcohol content, which may be driven by taxation (typically higher for stronger drinks).

All this means that ordering a drink these days is pretty different to ordering in 1990 – and even more so compared with Queen Anne’s time. The drink is likely to be larger, stronger and in a glass that encourages you to drink more. Sticking to the UK guideline of fewer than 14 units per week is a tricky business. So, what can we do?

Now you know

We know that drinking alcohol increases the risk of at least six different types of cancer. At WCRF, we’re committed to influencing public health policy to create healthy environments that make it easier to follow our Cancer Prevention Recommendations, and that means limiting the amount of alcohol we drink. To help us achieve effective change, WCRF is a member of the Alcohol Health Alliance, a coalition of 50 non-governmental organisations that work together across the UK to highlight rising levels of alcohol-related health risks, and promote evidence-based policies to reduce the harm caused by alcohol.

Policy change can take time, so we also have some tips to help you cut down on alcohol starting now. From my own experience, there are more and more low- or no-alcohol products on the market that make alcohol-free socialising much easier.

Serving sizes might be getting larger and alcoholic drinks might be getting stronger – but our knowledge of the health effects of alcohol is also increasing, along with insight into industry tactics to make us drink and spend more. And with that knowledge comes the power to effect change.