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Counting Drinks Helps to Reduce Alcohol Intake: Study

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Jun 11, 2021

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Image Credit: Getty/Hitesh Sonar For The Swaddle

We know alcohol isn’t great for our health. But its link to a host of health complications is far more concerning than we realize. New research offers a simple but intuitive solution: if awareness about the increased risk of cancer due to alcohol is paired with tangible actions like counting our drinks, people are more motivated to cut down on drinking.

The findings offer a way to effectively target individual behavior around alcohol consumption and illustrate the role of public health messaging in ensuring good health.

The study, published in Addictive Behaviors, explores the effectiveness of a two-fold model of public health messaging, which targets “why to reduce” intake and “how” this can be done. “Pairing information about alcohol and cancer with a particular practical action – counting their drinks – resulted in drinkers reducing the amount of alcohol they consumed,” said Simone Pettrigrew, the study’s lead author and head of food policy at The George Institute for Global Health, in a press release.

The researchers conducted a randomized trial on 8,000 people in Australia. The participants were divided into two groups — one was shown only messaging on why they should reduce alcohol consumption, while the other was shown both “why to reduce” and “how to reduce” messaging. The results showed that only participants in the second group “exhibited a significant reduction in alcohol consumed.”


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Research has previously shown alcohol is a carcinogen – that is, a substance with the capacity to cause cancer. It is known to cause at least six different types of cancer, along with other health side effects. Alcohol consumption is linked to as many as 7% of premature deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. But experts say more public awareness of alcohol’s harms is needed.

“It’s one of those inconvenient truths that we really don’t want to know,” said Pettigrew.

But knowing the association between drinks and disease solves only half the problem. There are other inconvenient truths we are aware of: smoking causes cancer, eating junk food is unhealthy. But the motivation to cut down on these harmful activities is where things get tricky. The new study is therefore critical in understanding that in order to navigate this — people also need to be told how.

“In focus groups, people kept saying, ‘Everybody around me drinks, and my glass gets topped up, and I don’t know it’s happening’, and they’re just thinking there are so many barriers out there to reducing your alcohol intake,” Pettigrew explains. Researchers suggest that being told how to cut our intake — like counting how many brews or shots we have — plays a role in deciding how much we end up drinking. By the end of the study, the combination of “how” and “why” resulted in reducing people’s alcohol consumption over six weeks.

“Basically, if you think about how you drink, and alcohol goes down through your throat, and down and out with the digestive system, everywhere it touches it causes cancer, and it also interferes with hormones,” she said.

Notably, not all initiatives to discourage alcohol intake work. Official interventions around the globe have used some combination of increasing taxes on alcohol, tinkering with the eligibility age, or making alcohol less readily available. Within India, research around interventions has pointed out “limit[ing] the availability of substances to make them more difficult to obtain and use” or using “criminal or other social sanctions to discourage adolescents from using substances” as potential ways.  Despite strict prohibitions like dry days and age eligibility, the same research notes that “smuggling and sale of illicit alcohol are very common.”

Which is not to say these interventions are not crucial in discouraging overconsumption. But the present research suggests theory and practice need to go hand in hand in course-correcting individual behavior.

Moreover, some current government policies advise on the “right” amount of alcohol or the daily intake levels. But this messaging ends up lacking subtext and warning. For instance, the experts cited alcohol guidelines in Australia that talk of “limiting” alcohol intake or keeping the number of drinks per week at a certain limit. “It’s a guideline for how to keep your risk low, not how to keep your risk zero.”

Alcohol consumption, health burden, and societal costs vary across countries, and arguably, impact low and middle-income countries like India in a more deliberate way. “In the absence of a formal uniform nation-wide alcohol policy, most Indian states, in the best of times, swing periodically between two policy poles: total prohibition (often motivated by political favor with women voters before elections) and increasing sales (motivated by tax considerations and aided by the industry). Unfortunately, the health imperative rarely figures in these considerations,” a paper published this year says.

The authors draw the conclusion that these are inconsistent with long-term rational control, as “well-meaning attempts to reduce harm by controlling people’s behaviors, often get enmeshed in wider political ‘shock-doctrine’ strategies.”

In the end, the answer has to balance both public health messaging and public health policy. “There are limited resources available for alcohol harm-reduction campaigns, so it’s important to find out which messages resonate best to ensure they have the best chance of working,” Pettigrew says.

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Written By Saumya Kalia

Saumya Kalia is Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.

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