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The simple reason why anti-alcohol campaigners fail to understand British drinking habits

Despite alcohol consumption and binge drinking continuing to fall, we’re still being warned that we drink too much. Coverage of the latest research reveals that we’re talking at cross-purposes.

When I wrote my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, I made a big deal about binge drinking in the UK compared to other countries. Despite having listed up to 200 words to describe drunkenness in Man Walks into a Pub, it struck me that we didn’t have a good word to describe the state between drunkenness and sobriety.

For Three Sheets I travelled through fourteen different countries exploring beer drinking culture. In Spain, I found the word chispa – literally translated as ‘spark’. They use it to describe the state when you’ve had a few drinks and the world is suffused with a warm glow. You probably wouldn’t drive a car or operate heavy machinery, but it would be pushing it to say that you’re pissed. Social inhibitions have eroded, and you’re probably a bit more animated, a bit more talkative. But you’re not in a state where you would do anything you regret, or anything you can’t remember. Your speech isn’t slurred and you can still walk straight. You just feel nicer.

In Germany, they have a word Gemütlichkeit, which translates most closely as ‘cosiness’, and is used to describe a similar state. In Denmark it’s hygge. Since then, I’ve discovered the same concept in various other countries.

The best equivalents we have in English are ‘merry’ or ‘tipsy’, which sound like they only apply to your aunt at a wedding. The Americans say ‘buzzed’, or they might talk about ‘getting a buzz on’, but this is imprecise and doesn’t exclude outright drunkenness. So we usually end up describing this state by saying that we got ‘a little bit pissed.’

This is hopelessly misleading and inadequate. Talk to the Spanish, and they make a clear distinction between chispa and drunkenness. As in, ‘I reach chispa two or three times a week, but I haven’t been drunk since I was eighteen.’ It’s a separate state, a specifically different level of intoxication, just as different from outright drunkenness as it is from sobriety. Whereas we in the UK are on a sliding scale – as soon as we’re not completely sober, we’re a little bit drunk, with the implication that we’re inevitably heading further along the spectrum.

I’m reminded of this by the dangerous language around new research released by a group led by the University of Sheffield into British drinking habits.

It claims that the British are rejecting advice on ‘binge drinking’ guidelines because trying to measure it in units has no relation to how we actually drink.

Fair enough, I can relate to that.

It finds that most of us don’t drink every day (so why the daily guidelines?) but that when we do fancy a drink, we drink a fair bit. So now, there are calls for telling us “how much we can safely binge drink on a Saturday night,”

And this is where researchers and reporters queue up to show how little they understand about drinking.

Lead Researcher Dr John Holmes, from the University of Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, says, “What we found is that the guidelines at the moment kind of assume that people drink a bit too much, very often. In fact we were finding people saying’ I don’t drink too often but when I go out I do want to get a bit drunk.” He then goes on to argue that this is different from the European drinking culture of “little and often.”

I’m not going to claim that there’s no such thing as a northern European binge drinking culture. But what’s being implied here is that this binge culture is the norm. And here’s where the use of language is shockingly, dangerously, misleading.

People saying they want to go out and get “a little bit drunk” is now being portrayed as the same as “binge drinking.”

I’d argue that people wanting to get “a little bit drunk” is them wanting to drink enough to feel the effects of alcohol (which for the vast majority, means more than the current daily guidelines). I would suggest that this is exactly the same as chispa, the Mediterranean culture that is supposedly so different from ours.

This research gets some things right, in that it is genuinely trying to understand the reasons people drink – and drink to excess. The reporting of the research doesn’t seem to be intentionally alarmist, and I haven’t seen much in the way of trying to twist it to suggest that we’re drinking ourselves to death.

But by equating “a bit drunk” with “binge drinking”, and by making no distinction between tipsiness, buzz, mild intoxication, whatever you want to call it, and the big occasions when we get wasted, it suggests a completely inaccurate picture of British drinking habits.

Most people I know go out and occasionally get pissed. Yes, there’s some bravado about it. Yes, we might have an irresponsible cheerfulness about it. But I’d argue that most British people, most of the time, drink enough to feel a buzz, but not enough to wake up with a stinking hangover the next morning. And increasingly, these drinking occasions happen less often.

Alcohol is an intoxicating drug. That’s one of the main reasons we drink it (not the only reason mind). We drink it to feel an effect. And as a society, we currently have a real problem with that – an automatic assumption that if we want to change our brain chemistry with the use of drugs, that is some kind of moral failing, even a crime. The source of our problem around drink policy is that we’re scared to admit this – alcohol advertising is banned from suggestion that drink can be a factor in enhancing social occasions, when that is the main reason we have it at social occasions, because it DOES.

And so we get the sheer daftness of home secretary Theresa May trying to ban ‘legal highs’ by bringing forward a bill for the outright prohibition of any and all psychoactive substances, which then makes specific exemptions for those in common use, such as alcohol, coffee, and I presume, chocolate, pro plus tablets, snuff, paracetomol, Berocca, and anything else that the ingestion of which changes people’s moods, depending on how the government is feeling.


Every human society, at every stage of human history, has used psychoactive substances to change brain chemistry and mood. In stable societies with proper guidelines around their use, these mood changes enhance our lives and bring us closer together. When societies are unstable and uncertain, and when the controls around these substances are unfit (which is just as likely to mean that they are over-controlled rather than not controlled enough, driving usage underground, criminalising and deregulating supply) they are more likely to cause harm.

It is not a moral failing, nor is it objectively dangerous, to seek to change our brains with the use of intoxicating substances. It is dangerous to over-indulge.

But to drink enough to feel an effect, to get “a bit drunk”, which is the best translation of chispa we have, is NOT the same as binge drinking. To suggest that it is is to overwhelmingly misunderstand what drinking is all about.

Drinking to get drunk, as we commonly understand it, is to seek oblivion through drink – to blot out the end of a relationship or a terrible, stressful job.  To drink to get “a bit drunk” is to relax, chill out, get closer to people and form social bonds. It is to heighten life experience, not blot it out. Crucially, it’s about the pattern of drinking, the context of drinking, the speed of drinking, and what you’re drinking, at least as much as it is about the amount you drink. How else do you explain the fact that middle class people drink more than poor working class people, but poor working class people are more likely to suffer from alcohol related harm than middle class people?

Until those influencing government policy understand this, we haven’t got a hope of there being any sensible advice on how much it is safe to drink.




I admire your perspicacity. A great article, thanks.

I wonder how long before we have to outlaw making oneself dizzy by spinning around? My four-year old does it because "it makes me feel funny"

It clearly has a mood-altering effect…something must be done. Legislate now!


I like "lit up", but nobody uses it these days.

I think this is a really important argument. Thanks to the way that any level of intoxication has been denormalised, we're perpetually on the back foot when it comes to defending beer – as if the idea that it makes you feel nice is childishly naive, or at best the sign of a shameful and dangerous weakness. Nobody celebrates the fact that beer gets you… well, lit up; nobody dares. This despite the fact that ill-effects from regular moderate drinking keep on not being found.

Here's my slogan for the next alcohol awareness campaign: "Just have a couple: it feels good and it won't kill you." Or they could borrow Yates's old slogan, "Moderation is true temperance".

To be scrupulously fair, I think there has historically been a culture of getting properly drunk regularly and getting absolutely slaughtered on special occasions; it's something British beer drinkers used to pride themselves on. Have you come across the late-60s folk song "Bring us a barrel"? It starts with the line "No man that's a drinker drinks ale from a pin" – because four and a half gallons is too little for anyone – and works its way up the scale to the butt. That's 240 gallons, which (according to the song) will do for "an hour or so". It's hyperbole, obviously, and doesn't reflect the way people actually drank – but it does reflect the way that a lot of people used to like they think they drank. See also the way that certain celebrities were lionised partly for being drunks – George Best, Alex Higgins, Oliver Reed, Tony Capstick. But, as the vintage of those names suggests, all that's pretty much a thing of the past – think of how Gazza's public perception was affected when he became known as a boozer. At best the Sheffield guys are fighting yesterday's battles.


… and funnily enough, there's not even any straightforward way to classify a substance as "psychoactive". It's very much a "down with this sort of thing" approach. You thought the judge was going to have a sniff, toke, swallow of the substance in question? Or that there's some secret program where white-coated types in some special unit methodically feed every chemical that ever existed (or could exist) to criminals while observing their behaviour? No, what's actually going to happen is some overworked pane of experts get to report on the likelihood (given what we know of the chemistry) that the stuff is "psychoactive". So in effect, it's the same process as the current Temporary Class Drug Orders except that the banning isn't temporary and there's no parlimentary scrutiny. Oh, and that it'll establish retrospective criminality. Anyhoo, I'm planning on mellowing out with a few glasses of beer this evening.

Al Ward

If anyone thinks that foreigners do not drink as heavily as us has obviously not spent any time in Germany,Hamburg in particular is pure Bacchanalia with enormous glass steins of beer disappearing at a rapid rate.The behaviour of Japanese men in Tokyo`s early eveing has to be seen to be believed.My companions wife was openly groped by one such reveller who shouted`Herro bebee`as he grabbed her crutch.He was saved from a terrible hiding by the fact that may was as drunk as he was and fell over when he tried to punch him!

Pivní Filosof

"…But to drink enough to feel an effect, to get "a bit drunk", which is the best translation of chispa we have…

No, the best translation you have is "tipsy" or "merry". In Argentina, by the way, we use "alegre", and here in CZ some people say "veselé" to describe the "chispa" state, and both words can be translated to "merry".

So you do have a very good word, actually, two. And yet, in this otherwise very good post, you dismiss them as something that can only describe your aunt at a wedding, and then spend several hundred words griping about what a problem not having adequate descriptors?

Perhaps, what you should do is to reclaim "tipsy" and "merry", and start using them again for what they are, the perfect translation for "chispa".


I see what you mean Pivni but I wasn't dismissing them myself – I was pointing out that as a country, that's how we use them. I'd love to change that if I could!

Gary Gillman

I think you're right that there is no word in British English quite like "chispa". Tipsy isn't really the same, there isn't usually (or necessarily) a warm association to the term. Ditto lit up, even more for half-cocked (IMO).

I would propose refreshed which I think Private Eye popularized. Once I was in Norman Balen's Coach and Horses, Greek Street, Soho and a fellow came in with his girl and whispered to her, "I need an emergency half-pint", a expression I've never forgotten, but that doesn't get across the "buzzed" idea in the same pithy way. I do think buzzed is a good word for the state but it's a North American term, not in wide use anyway in the U.K. I understand.

Refreshed is the best choice I think but will be hobbled by being semi-slang at best and with a comic overtone that isn't always quite right here.

Okay, now on the substance. I am not British but have visited the U.K. quite a few times. I know that binge drinking does exist at different social levels, and that is one point of difference I think to some other societies, but that doesn't mean it is the typical pattern. I believe large parts of the population do drink responsibly. This is proven (to me anyway) in many ways including by the popular expression, to have a quick one. A quick one means one, maybe two, but not 10. Many times I saw people pop in a pub, have one, and leave, or ditto in the bar before getting on a train, or on a train.

Amongst some youth though, and sometimes in other circumstances, I think the idea has taken root that to drink means one should drink a lot. I know someone who was born in the U.K. and used to work in a pub there. He told me recently, when the lines were cleaned, we'd get drunk. I was thinking, why would he say that? Why not say, we'd have a quick one, or a drink, why did they need to get drunk? An English friend once told me "it is the British way" but again, I think in actual practice it can't be, no modern society can function that way. I've never heard that British alcohol abuse is comparable to what I've read about Russia for example.

The lack of a suitable term to describe the middle state may be a lexicological accident but encourage over-drinking as an unfortunate side wind. That doesn't mean the problem is chronic and major for the country as a whole and based on what I've read and without in any way minimizing the abuse that does occur – we have all seen pictures of high street, sports event and holiday bachanals that are inexcusable, I don't think it is typical of society at large day in day out, based again on many social but also business visits there.



For some time I thought myself an alcoholic, quit drinking entirely and started obsessing a great deal about booze and me and others.

I talked about it a lot. Probably bored others to death. But I did discover one true thing.

People lie about how much they drink. Everybody. I have never, not once, ever, found someone completely honest about it, except the true blue alcoholic teetotalers.

My estimate is the average person under-reports by at least 50%, more like 100%. A "couple of drinks" always means 4 or more. A "few drinks" is 8 or 9. Und so weiter.

The amusing parts were that they lied to themselves and did it to me in the face of incontrovertible and obvious evidence. Like a friend who lived alone and consumed 26 ounces of rye whiskey just about every three days. I was at his place often and watched his stock of empties grow. I counted them regularly. He was utterly convinced, and convincing, that he drank "3 or 4" drinks a day. Texas size drinks, maybe.


I'd disagree, I report my drinking accurately. A couple means two, three at the outside. A few drinks will be 4-6, and usually nearer the 4, and more than that is unusual, as it gives me a stinking hangover now I'm middle-aged. It is a very rare thing for me to be slurring, or properly drunk, however, because I might go out for the aforementioned "few drinks" (my definition) at a weekend, that apparently makes me a binge-drinker [shrug]. I drink alcohol because I *like* it, and I like the social space of pubs too, so I have no intention of stopping.

John M

These alcohol campaigners are simply idiots. At the point where ordinary people realised that "binge drinking" was defined by these zealots as "just two f**king beers" thier whole credibility thing went right out of the window, as it absolutely deserved to.

Now these pricks, driven by a need to keep the gravy train of government funding going any way they can, have decided to rewrite all thier supposedly scientifically derived "advice" for no other reason that it's bollocks and everyone knows it.

That's a great way to run health campaigning… just make it up as you go along…


Pete –

This isn't an issue about the language used to describe how much we drink. It's about how much we drink. Mixing the two means you actually make the topic you're seeking to simplify more confusing.

It's not hard to go out on a Saturday afternoon and have an eight-pint session with mates, eating lunch and dinner as you go, and head home at the end of the evening only 'a bit drunk'. That'd qualify in your parlance as drinking to 'relax, chill out, get closer to people and form social bonds…..to heighten life experience, not blot it out.' And you'd be absolutely right.

But eight pints at 4 per cent ABV per pint is over 18 units. I might not have been pissed at the end of the evening, but I left the recommended 3-4 units back around 2.30PM.

Or the four pints I'm happy to have on a Thursday or Friday evening? Nine units.

The people tasked with coming up with the guidelines have to do two things properly: correctly interpret the latest scientific evidence on the ways drinking impacts our health, and explain it in a manner that can be used and understood when the man or woman in the street decides to drink.

I'm not saying they do it particularly well, but their guidelines are backed by science. Science that gets more accurate as long-term studies produce more reliable findings, and scientists collate data from global studies.

And today's science is pretty clear: drinking more than 30 grams of alcohol daily (just under four units) can lead to higher blood pressure, fatty liver, etc, etc.

I think getting riled about 'People saying they want to go out and get "a little bit drunk" is now being portrayed as the same as "binge drinking."' is disingenuous. Most Brits I know use 'a little bit drunk' as a euphemism for drinking a fair bit.

We know how much is safe to drink. It's just most of us would like it to be a lot more than it is. You might hate the term 'binge drinking', but changing it won't change the science behind how booze affects us.


Why on earth do we need 'guidance' on how much we should drink?

I for one am perfectly capable of deciding how much I should drink, and I don't need any guidance from 'experts' whatsoever. So I never take any notice of their pontifications. They are just a bunch of troughers looking for more funding to pay the mortgage.

The whole concept of these aforesaid 'experts' being able to pronounce on 'safe limits', given the complexity and variety of the human race is laughable. What is an 'average' person? Even if they could define an average person, that classification would apply to a very small proportion of the population. The vast majority would fall well outside those parameters one way or another. And if, to be on the safe side, they go for the lowest common denominator, their pronouncements are going to be equally irrelevant to the majority.

Are we so brainwashed that we need people to tell us how to live our life? How much to drink? What and how much we should eat? That we shouldn't smoke?

What have we become that these self-appointed 'experts' can dictate to us, via government legislation, what we can and cannot do? I despair sometimes at the herd mentality that seems to prevail these days. Whatever happened to self-determination?


'round hereabouts it is common to describe the condition of mild inebriation as being 'half cut'. Sometimes the term is 'slightly under the weather'

J Bonington Jagworth

Your mention of St Theresa of May (about the only MP I’ve ever fancied, admittedly some time ago) reminds me that it would be handy to know what was the per capita consumption of alcohol in the (heavily subsidised) HoC bars. You’d need a barrage of FoI requests, no doubt, but that knowledge would put a useful crimp on their constant proselytising. I bet it's more than 21 units a week!

Professor Pie-Tin

Fluted,as in " I was a little fluted last night " is a common expression around here to describe the pre-pissed state.
Langers,as in "Jaysus you were langers last night " describes being pissed.
If you then start acting the maggot you're being a complete lang-ball or,indeed, a langer although strangely being called a langer can also be a term of endearment even though it describes the male organ.


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