The Portman Group helps to prevent misuse of alcohol in the UK

INTERVIEWS

The Portman Group is not a trade association, but a pan-industry organisation whose purpose is to help prevent misuse of alcohol and to promote sensible drinking. An independent company, limited by guarantee, The Portman Group was set up in 1989 by the UK’s leading drinks manufacturers, which together supply the majority of the alcohol sold in the UK.

‘Sensible drinking’ – isn’t that a contradiction in terms?
The Portman Group: “Don’t be misled by the bad image alcohol sometimes attracts. Like air travel, it only hits the headlines when something goes wrong. Alcohol misuse is a problem for a minority. The majority of those who drink do so responsibly.”

Isn’t it a bit dreary though?
The Portman Group: “Thanks to research studies, we now know much more about how to drink in a way that is compatible with a healthy lifestyle.
We also know more about the health and other risks we run if we ignore that information. So ‘sensible drinking’ is a way of enjoying the pleasure and the benefits, but avoiding the hazards and the harm.”

So how much is OK to drink each day?
The Portman Group: “That depends on whether you’re male or female. Most men are OK for 3 to 4 units a day, most women for 2 to 3. But if men consistently drink 4 or more units a day, the health risks start to accumulate. The same goes for women who consistently drink 3 or more units a day.”

Units? What on earth are units?
The Portman Group: “Units are a way of measuring how much alcohol you’re drinking. A unit is 8 grams of pure alcohol, if you want to be scientific about it. But the amount of alcohol in any given type of drink will obviously depend on how big the glass, can or bottle is, and how strong the drink is.”

I’m no Einstein. How can I keep track of my units without being a whiz-kid at maths?
The Portman Group: “Luckily, most drinks come in fairly standard sizes and strengths. So it’s quite easy to keep an accurate enough tally – if you’re drinking out, that is. If you’re having spirits or wine at home, though, you’ll need to be more alert, as you can bet you’ll be helping yourself to larger servings than the pub or restaurant would give you! The examples in The Portman Group’s leaflet ‘It all adds up’ give the most workable unit ranges, to the nearest half-unit, for the most common drinks in the most common servings. You could use that as a ready reckoner.”

Surely different people can tolerate different amounts of alcohol?
The Portman Group: “Of course there are individual differences. Some people shouldn’t drink at all. Children under 16 should not assume these guidelines apply to them either, as their bodies have not yet matured enough to deal with alcohol in the same way as adults. But the scientific research on which the guidelines are based does enable advice to be given both to men in general and women in general.”

Are there any other exceptions to the rule?
The Portman Group: “People involved in certain activities where safety and control are paramount are advised not to drink at all. Driving is an obvious one. Before swimming or other active physical sports is another no-go area for drinking. And you shouldn’t drink if you’re about to operate machinery, go up ladders or do any kind of work which requires you to have your wits fully about you.”
“Taking certain medications is also incompatible with drinking alcohol.”

Why shouldn’t women drink as much as men?
The Portman Group: “A woman drinking the same amount as a man of exactly the same size will get intoxicated faster because she has a lower proportion of water in her body weight. This leads to a higher concentration of alcohol in the body tissue. Women’s average weight is lower than men’s in any case. And just for good measure, the scientists also think that women’s bodies break alcohol down more slowly than men’s, so alcoholic drink has a longer-lasting effect.”

Is it OK to drink in pregnancy?
The Portman Group: “If you’re pregnant – or planning to be – then you’ve got to be sensible for two. The guidelines say that no more than 1 or 2 units once or twice a week should be the benchmark for you. Drunkenness should also be avoided, which should be easy enough if you’re sticking to those guidelines.”

I thought drinking red wine every day was supposed to be good for your heart. There must be some good news in here somewhere…?
The Portman Group: “Well, the reference to red wine is a bit of a red herring. The good news is that it’s any kind of alcohol, not just wine or red wine, that can have a significant protective effect on your heart. The bad news for all you strapping young twenty- or thirty-somethings out there is that the health benefit only kicks in for men over 40 and for women after the menopause.”

Does that mean we can drink more as we get older?
The Portman Group: “Afraid not. It’s important to remember that the maximum health advantage for the heart for men over 40 and women past the menopause comes from drinking between 1 and 2 units a day. Drinking more doesn’t increase the benefit.”

It’s all so complicated. Wouldn’t it just be easier – and more honest – to get everyone to drink less?
The Portman Group: “Some people believe that if less alcohol were consumed by the population as a whole, there would be fewer alcohol-related problems. But this doesn’t necessarily follow. Take the example of deaths caused by drink-driving in the UK. The numbers have dropped dramatically without the overall level of alcohol consumption going down. This has been achieved because people have responded positively to well-communicated messages about their behaviour. By the same token, people are more likely to continue drinking sensibly, or begin to drink sensibly, if they are informed by a general public health message which they can interpret in relation to their own personal behaviour and choices. They don’t want to feel punished or guilty or nagged because of other people’s over-indulgence, when they are doing no harm to their own health.”

Are you seriously telling me that the drinks industry supports sensible drinking. What’s in it for them?
The Portman Group: “You could put that the other way round: what’s in it for the drinks industry if it does nothing about the way a minority of people misuse its products? The major alcoholic drinks companies set up The Portman Group in 1989 because they were genuinely committed to promoting sensible drinking and helping to prevent alcohol abuse. Our policies and work are carried out irrespective of the commercial consequences to the industry.”

But they wouldn’t fund The Portman Group if you weren’t helping the industry, would they?
The Portman Group: “Exactly, and we believe that promoting sensible drinking, as well as being a worthwhile activity in its own right, is also in the long term interests of the industry. Call it enlightened self-interest. If consumers and the industry can both benefit from the same approach, perhaps being sensible is not such a dreary idea after all. Being responsible and getting pleasure are not mutually exclusive activities. Sensible drinking is one way to do both.”

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