Two thirds of heavy drinkers in denial about their alcohol consumption, study finds

HRB finds women who drink harmfully particularly likely to think drinking is moderate

Two thirds of heavy drinkers are in denial about their alcohol consumption, with women who drink harmfully particularly likely to see themselves as moderate drinkers, a landmark study published on Thursday finds.

Conducted by the Health Research Board (HRB) and published in the British Medical Journal, the study found just one in three regular binge drinkers were aware of their drinking pattern.

A third of people who were alcohol dependent considered themselves as either “light” or “moderate” drinkers while one in two who were alcohol dependent described themselves as “light” or “moderate” drinkers who “sometimes binge drink”.

Titled Drinking in Denial, the study draws on interviews with and questionnaires from 7,005 people. It is the first population-wide examination of the public’s perception of their own drinking.


Respondents were asked how much alcohol they consumed, whether and how often they engaged in ‘risky single occasion drinking’ (RSOD) also known as ‘binge drinking’, and to characterise their drinking. Binge drinking was defined as consuming six or more standard drinks in one sitting. Hazardous drinking means binge drinking at least once a month but not being dependent on alcohol. Harmful drinking means being dependent on alcohol.

While just over half (51.6 per cent) of drinkers were low-risk drinkers, 97.6 per cent of drinkers classified themselves as “light or moderate” drinkers.

Binge drinking

Some 70.9 per cent classified themselves as light or moderate drinkers who never binged, and 26.7 per cent categorised themselves as light or moderate drinkers who sometimes binge drank. Just 2.4 per cent classified themselves as heavy drinkers.

Dependent female drinkers were less likely than males to describe themselves as a heavy drinker (11.4 per cent compared with 18.7 per cent).

“Of those who had a hazardous or harmful pattern of drinking (numbering 2,420), 67.9 per cent were unaware of this and misclassified themselves as being either a light or moderate drinker,” says the report.

And this misperception of their own hazardous or harmful drinking was more pronounced among respondents who were older, less-educated, married, retired or engaged in home duties.

Given the damage over-drinking can cause, “it is particularly concerning that so many Irish people with alcohol dependence believe themselves to be light or moderate drinkers,” say the authors.

There was a need for awareness raising on what constituted a standard drink and what moderate drinking actually meant.

"Our findings regarding awareness of hazardous and harmful drinking are similar to a recent study in Australia, which reported that 68 per cent of Australian drinkers who consume 11 or more standard drinks on a 'typical occasion' consider themselves a 'responsible drinker'."

The report calls for public guidance on daily low-risk limits.

“In order for individuals to monitor and be aware of their alcohol consumption, knowledge on the standard drink concept and low-risk drinking guidelines is required.

“It is unrealistic to expect people to stay within low-risk limits and to be able to accurately assess their own hazardous or harmful drinking in the absence of knowledge on what actually constitutes hazardous or harmful drinking.”

Dr Mairead O’Driscoll, interim chief executive at the HRB said the study underlined the need for further initiatives to reduce alcohol consumption, to clearly identify harmful-drinking and to raise awareness about its impact.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times