by Robyn Banks

This weekend, thousands of freshers will descend on University towns across the UK, and pubs, clubs and takeaways prepare themselves for busy nights and big takings. Four years ago I was a fresher in Norwich, and this week my younger sister is hitting the town in Brighton for the first time. Before either of us even arrived in our respective new towns, we knew the score: pre-drinks, pub, club, after-drinks. Our party dresses were the first to be packed and the first to be unpacked.

We grow up in a culture where we know that the first year of university is about drinking, surrounded by tales of students who spend more money on beer than on food and the collective assumption that this is what our maintenance loans are for, and gently edged towards arranging our own priorities similarly. If the entire first year is not about drinking, then fresher’s week definitely is. That’s the first weekend and the first week. And the second weekend. And some of the second week. Fact.

However, four years of university have given me a new perspective on drinking culture, and in January this year the government released a comprehensive review of the evidence and updated their drinking guidelines for the first time in twenty years- sealing my decision to put my clubbing days behind me. The new guidelines state that no amount of alcohol is in fact a safe amount, but in order to have a less than 1% chance of dying due to an alcohol related cause men are now advised to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, in line with women’s recommended allowances. Previously men were allowed 21. Humans in general are also advised to drink after food, alternate drinks with water and to leave “drink-free day” gaps between drinking to allow their bodies to recover.


To put that in to perspective, your lifetime risk of being killed in a car accident is half that of the risk of death from an alcohol related cause if you drink within the new guidelines. That’s quite big. Up the units to 35 per week and you see the risk of bowel cancer nearly double. Alcohol has been strongly linked to 7 types of cancer including breast cancer, mouth cancer and liver cancer. And the truth is, 14 units is really not that many.

your lifetime risk of being killed in a car accident is half that of the risk of death from an alcohol related cause if you drink within the new guidelines.

The report said that not many people understand what a unit of alcohol is, and many confuse it with number of drinks. A pint of beer has 2 units, an alcopop 1.5 and a glass of wine 3.5. A bottle of wine has around 10. A double nearly 3. When I was drinking regularly, it wasn’t uncommon to get through a bottle of wine at pre-drinks, five or even ten doubles while out and then carry on when we got in with spirits and mixers (here I would like to give a small shout-out to my friend Louisa and her Disaronno for nearly killing me several times). You can do the math.

But some of us knew we were drinking too much, as wild nights out faded in to black-outs and drinking sessions continued through the next day. A few students I have known I have strongly suspected to have alcohol dependencies. And as deadline stress began to get to me and my mental health worsened in my third year, that comforting bottle of red was all too easy, available and socially acceptable.

These new guidelines won’t end our drinking culture, but perhaps you have a reason to go #SoberforOctober, or if not completely sober at least the occasional safer alternative. Happy messy fresher-ing!

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