As the 2016 UK Alcohol Awareness Week (14th -20th November) is nearing its end, let us take a moment to focus on the central theme of this year’s edition: alcohol and health, and knowing the health risks associated with alcohol. After nearly a decade of large-scale awareness campaigns world-wide on the risks associated with alcohol, how pressing is the need for initiatives such as the Alcohol Awareness Week?
In a recently published article in the journal Archives of Public Health, Y. Feng and I. M. Newman present an estimate of adolescent alcohol use in China, based on a study of literature published between 2007 and 2015. They report drinking rates for the last 30 days as high as 23.6% for male and 15.3% of female middle-school students (ages 12 – 15). Drinking rates for high school and vocational high school students (ages 15-18) are reported even higher: 36.5% for male and 21.2% for female high school students, and up to 44.7% for male and 28.8% of female vocational high school students.
Knowing that the consumption of alcohol at a young age holds severe risks for a child/adolescent’s physiological development, especially the development of the brain, these drinking rates reported for Chinese adolescents might shock you. It might shock you even more then, that a study across Europe, performed in 2015, reported that 48% of the 15-16 year olds had drunk alcohol in the past 30 days.
However, drinking rates reported for underage drinkers in Europe in 2015 were about 17% lower than drinking rates for the same age group in 2011. Among adults as well, drinking rates in Europe have decreased over the last decade. Nonetheless, despite this decrease in consumption current drinking rates still comprise serious health threats, such as an increased chance of several types of cancer, a greater risk of developing coronary heart disease and a negative effect on fertility.
The question is what could help decreasing drinking rates even more? Do we need drinking guidelines, as several – but not all – countries have developed? Do we need more efforts to raise awareness?
Despite a decrease in alcohol consumption, the consumption of alcohol per capita in the UK remains higher than the average consumption rates in Europe. As a result of the growing concern on health risks caused by alcohol, the UK changed its drinking limit guidance on January 1st 2016, for the first time in 20 years.
Whereas in the past 20 years women were advised to drink no more than 2-3 units (= one pint of beer with ABV 5.2% or one large glass of wine) a day and men no more than 3-4 units, and to have at least two alcohol-free days a week, the new guidance states that the limit for both men and women should be 14 units a week, spread evenly over 3 or more days.
In China, on the other hand, alcohol consumption is rising as a result of the fast economic development and the associated rise in average income. We can only imagine that the rates of adolescent alcohol use reported above are also rising. Recent studies indicate, furthermore, that alcohol related health problems occur more often, but that awareness about those problems remains low. Some 42% of the rural Chinese population is said not to be aware of alcoholism leading to health problems. China, in contrary to the UK, currently also does not have any official drinking guidelines.
It remains questionable whether drinking guidelines and awareness campaigns can really change drinking habits. We can only wait and see over time if the UK’s altered drinking limit guidance and awareness campaigns have had the desired effect and if the Chinese government will endeavor to raise awareness regarding alcohol related health risks.
Meanwhile, I invite you to do take a look at the guide to the Alcohol Awareness Week 2016. Forearmed is forewarned?