Why a glass of wine can do more harm than you realise

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IT is an image which strikes horror into the hearts of most parents – teenagers in the street knocking back bottles of Buckfast. But how many parents realise the wine they drink at home may be every bit as powerful as the drink of choice of young yobs?

While Buckfast contains 15 per cent alcohol, many of the nation's favourite wines are now every bit as strong.

Take Papavero Primitivo 2006 – the best-selling red for one leading internet wine seller, Direct Wines Ltd. It contains 14 per cent alcohol. Some popular wines, such as Australian Zinfandel, a particularly robust red at 16 per cent, contain more alcohol than Buckfast.

It highlights a problem which is causing growing concern among health professionals – widespread ignorance about the amount of alcohol we actually drink.

A YouGov poll released this week has found that many who consider themselves moderate drinkers are unaware of the high levels of alcohol in their drinks, because measures are getting larger while beers and wines are getting stronger.

The poll comes after the Scottish Government warned alcohol misuse is costing Scotland 2.25 billion a year – more than double previous estimates – and is hitting business, the NHS, social services, police and courts.

While Zinfandel is at the higher end of the scale most bottles available in any supermarket or wine merchant are around 13 per cent.

David Henderson, a wine merchant of 25 years' experience and owner of Henderson's Wines in Morningside, is finding it increasingly difficult to find bottles of a more moderate strength.

He said: "I regularly get comments from discerning, educated wine drinkers who feel that they can't handle a bottle of 14 per cent.

"Yet I've been on wine-tasting trips to meet growers who say most people are only interested in wine that packs as much alcohol in the bottle as possible.

"In my experience people just have no idea how much alcohol they are drinking, and there are quite a few misconceptions out there. Some people believe white isn't as strong as red, or that a bottle of ros is less potent than a full-bodied wine."

The confusion is heightened for some shoppers as many of the most popular websites selling wine don't provide information about the alcoholic strength.

Jack Law, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said growing numbers of middle-aged drinkers risk damaging their health by drinking too much at home.

He added: "Older drinkers may drink at home rather than in pubs or clubs, and it's easy to get into the habit of having a few glasses of wine each night to 'relax'. Home measures tend to be far bigger than pub measures so a vodka, whisky or gin at home could be the equivalent of a double or treble in a bar. It's worth remembering that it's adults who are more likely to be hospitalised or attend a counselling service because of their drinking."

Tom Wood, chairman of Action on Alcohol and Drugs in Edinburgh, says many people believe there's only one unit of alcohol in a glass of wine, a pint of beer or a measure of spirits. He says: "There is indeed only one unit of alcohol in a glass of wine – provided it's a 125ml glass of wine with eight per cent alcohol.

"However, glasses of wine are now usually served in 250ml measures of between 12 and 14 per cent, so a glass of wine is now around three units of alcohol.

"It's important to educate people on these points. Some people may be under the impression that it is not that bad to have two or three glasses of wine regularly.

"The health service has now picked up on the fact that a lot of people are sleepwalking into serious health problems.

"These people may not be falling down in the gutter in a pool of vomit, but their health is being eroded in a very quiet and insidious way. They are risking long-term damage to their vital organs – including the liver, heart and cardiovascular system – and may pay the price through premature ageing and failing liver function."

Dalkeith GP Dr Dean Marshall, chairman of the BMA's Scottish General Practitioners Committee, said the problem is made worse by patients who misrepresent their alcohol intake in the patient surveys they take when registering with GPs.

He said: "According to these surveys I've never met anyone who smokes more than 20 a day, but this is quite clearly not the case and these surveys also reveal a similar ignorance about alcohol.

"What some people regard as one unit of alcohol is in fact two or three, so people may not necessarily be lying about their intake but may be unaware of how much they are consuming.

"For this reason the Department of Health in England is going to start paying GPs to carry out in-depth alcohol surveys, and is giving them the resources to compile the information more effectively.

"In Scotland a lot of money is poured into alcohol programmes but because there are so many groups focusing on alcohol, and receiving funds, the Scottish Government believes the message is getting through, whereas I think the money may be better spent by empowering GPs to carry out these kinds of studies."

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