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Alcohol - Know the numbers

Alcohol – A Part of Scottish Life

Alcohol has an important but complicated place in Scottish culture as part of people’s social lives and celebrations and also as part of the economy through industry and tourism. There are many positive things about drinking responsibly as part of social occasions.

More recently, there has been a lot of focus in the press, TV and radio on the issue of alcohol consumption and the problems it seems to cause.  So what is the official advice?

Low Risk Alcohol Guidelines

In January 2016, all Chief Medical Officers (CMO’s) across the UK issued revised and agreed guidance on unit consumption in adults with the inclusion of specific advice for pregnant women.  This advice is:

  • To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis.
  • If you regularly drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread your drinking evenly over 3 or more days. If you have one or two heavy drinking episodes a week, you increase your risk of death from long term illness and from accidents and injuries.
  • The risk of developing a range of health problems (including cancers of the mouth, throat and breast) increases the more you drink on a regular basis.
  • If you wish to cut down the amount you drink, a good way to help achieve this is to have several drink free days each week.
  • If you are pregnant or think you could become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to your baby to a minimum.
  • Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby, with the more you drink the greater the risk.
  • The risk of harm to your baby is likely to be low if you have drunk only small amounts of alcohol before you knew you were pregnant or during pregnancy.
  • If you find out you are pregnant after you have drunk alcohol during early pregnancy, you should avoid further drinking.  You should be aware that it is unlikely in most cases that your baby has been affected.  If you are worried about alcohol use during pregnancy do talk to your doctor or midwife.

What Are Units?

Units are a standard way of measuring how much alcohol is in any alcoholic drink.  30 years ago, this was quite straightforward as there wasn’t as big a range of drinks on the market as there are today.

This table below tells you how many units are in common drinks.



1 average cocktail

3 units

1 pint cider (5.4%)

3 units

1 large glass (12%) wine

3 units

1 small glass of fizz (12%)

1.5 units

1 pint beer/lager (5.4%)

3 units

1 standard pub measure spirits (25ml)

1 unit

Are You a Low Risk Drinker?

This table is a good guide but in order to work out how much alcohol you are drinking, you need to know the strength of the alcohol and the size of the measure.  This can be difficult as we tend to pour more generous measures at home than you get in pubs and restaurants.  But even in pubs and restaurants, large glasses of wine etc can have 3 or more units in them.   Many people therefore greatly underestimate the amount of alcohol they are drinking.  One drink does not equal 1 unit!  

Consequences of Drinking Too Much

There are many risks associated with alcohol some of which are health related and others are more about the social impact.  The health consequences include:

  • Increased risk of liver disease
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Risk of some cancers including breast cancer
  • Increased risk of thrombosis and sudden cardiac death
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Stomach and gastric problems

The social consequences of drinking too much alcohol include:

  • Unsafe sex
  • Risk of drug assisted sexual assault
  • Violence and aggression
  • Road traffic accidents
  • General falls, accidents and injuries
  • Embarrassing behaviour in front of family, friends or workmates

Lower Risk Drinking

Many people enjoy a good night out and drinking alcohol can be a part of that.  To make sure that too much alcohol doesn’t ruin your night, there are a few things you can do:

  • Pace yourself
  • Space out your alcoholic drinks with a soft drink in between
  • Decide on a limit before you go out and stick to it.  Know your body’s limits!
  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach
  • Try to drink slowly – you don’t have to keep up with the fast drinkers!
  • If you start to feel sick, dizzy or unwell, stop drinking
  • Try not to drink in rounds
  • Don’t leave your drinks unattended or with people you don’t know
  • If your friend is drinking too much, you should try to get them to stop drinking alcohol and have either a soft drink or water

Help & Support

If you think you are regularly drinking too much and would like to change your drinking habits, there are a few things you can do to help yourself:

  • Confide in or talk to someone you trust about ways you could tackle this
  • Keep a drinks diary for a month to record where, when and how much you drink as you could be underestimating it
  • Consider laying off alcohol for a while to give your body time to recover and you time to think about your alcohol use and what changes you want to make whether it be drinking less alcohol, drinking less often or stopping drinking completely

There are a range of agencies which can provide information, advice, help and support to those who want to change their drinking habits, or to relatives who might be concerned about someone else’s drinking.

Find out about local services via our Health and Wellbeing Directory

NHS Inform provides information on drinking sensibly, knowing your limits and getting support for alcohol abuse.

If you think you have a more serious problem with alcohol, contact your GP who will link you into your local Community Addiction Team (CAT), Substance Misuse Team, Alcohol and Drugs Recovery Service or Addiction Service.


Alcohol - Know the numbers poster (pdf)

Last Updated: 10 September 2021