Scientists Explain Why We Don't Care About Drinking Guidelines

The rules desperately need a reality check.

Everyone’s aware, in theory, that official drinking guidelines exist, but when have they really stopped anyone from crushing a magnum in two hours and blacking out in a cab? Exactly.

New research from the University of Sheffield proposes the reason why we don’t give a shit about the rules: If they can’t realistically be applied to our drinking habits, we’re going to ignore them.

The UK-based researchers, publishing their work in the journal Addiction, used focus groups in both Scotland and England to find out what participants aged 19-65 thought about UK drinking guidelines. The suggested intake is no more than three to four units of alcohol a day for men and no more than two or three for women.

These are reasonable guidelines with consumer health in mind, but there’s a slight problem when it comes to applying them: Most Brits don’t drink on a day-to-day basis, preferring instead to save boozing for the weekend. The rules also fail to take into account the fact that a lot of drinkers aren’t just out for a comfortable buzz — they drink to get drunk.

Not that participants didn’t regulate their drinking: They just didn’t base their choices on the guidelines. When they did curb their habits, it was for practical reasons, like childcare or workplace responsibilities.

The researchers are hoping that these results serve as a reality check for the policymakers and health professionals making these rules. The participants, it seemed, were big fans of Australian and Canadian drinking guidelines, which have separate categories for regular drinking and “single-occasion” (read: party) drinking. These guidelines were considered more realistic and flexible. The hope is that in addition to health, future guidelines take lifestyle and responsibilities into account.

So, the problem isn’t that we’re not following the rules. We just need new ones.

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