Researchers have found an effective method of getting people to cut down on their drinking: Highlight the increased risk of cancer that comes with it, and pair that with counting each and every drink.
This particular combination of 'why to reduce' and 'how to reduce' messaging can be useful for promoting good health in a population, said the team behind the 2021 study.
Too much drinking doesn't just lead to cancer, of course. Overdoing it on the booze is associated with a whole range of problems, including premature death, heart disease, digestive issues, and an increased risk of dementia.
"We found that pairing information about alcohol and cancer with a particular practical action – counting their drinks – resulted in drinkers reducing the amount of alcohol they consumed," said economist and psychologist Simone Pettigrew from The George Institute for Global Health.
For the study, three surveys were filled out: 7,995 people completed the first, 4,588 of those people completed the second three weeks later, and 2,687 people finished the final survey three weeks after that. The participants were split up into different groups and shown different advertisements and messages about drinking.
One combination stood out, compared to a control group: A TV ad linking booze and cancer, together with a suggestion to keep count of your drinks, was one of the most effective at getting people to try and cut down on alcohol intake.
It was also the only combination where people actually did significantly reduce their alcohol consumption over the six weeks.
Other approaches – like encouraging people to decide on a number of drinks and then stick to it – did prompt some of the volunteers to try and cut down, but there was a clear winner based on the people taking part in this research.
"Many people don't know that alcohol is a carcinogen," said Pettigrew. "It's important information that drinkers should have access to. But telling people alcohol causes cancer is just part of the solution – we also need to give them ways to take action to reduce their risk."
Alcohol consumption can be attributed to as many as 7 percent of premature deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and making drinkers more aware of the health risks is one way of tackling that problem.
While health agencies have also looked at ways of making booze less readily available and more expensive, ultimately personal choices will determine whether or not behavior around alcohol will shift in the long term.
In this particular study, the participants were chosen to be "broadly demographically representative of the Australian drinking public", so it's not an approach that will necessarily work elsewhere – but it seems that counting your drinks could be one option to try if you want to cut down.
"There are limited resources available for alcohol harm-reduction campaigns, so it's important to find out which messages resonate best to ensure they have the best chance of working," said Pettigrew.
The research was published in Addictive Behaviors.
An earlier version of this article was first published in June 2021.