People Drink Less Wine When Bars Remove the Largest Glass, Study Finds

The simple change could help reduce alcohol consumption and improve health at the population level, U.K. researchers say

Hand pouring a glass of wine from a bottle on a wooden table
Patrons drank less wine at bars and pubs in England that removed the largest serving size from their menus. Pixabay

Many consumers are reevaluating their relationships with alcohol, whether by cutting it out entirely during Dry January or by simply trying to scale back year-round.

Now, new research hints at another possible way to curb consumption. When pubs and bars in England removed the largest serving size of wine by the glass from their menus, patrons drank nearly 8 percent less wine, according to a new paper published in the journal PLOS Medicine.

That may not seem like much, but the researchers argue this small, easy-to-implement change could nudge individuals toward drinking less alcohol and improve overall population health.

Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked with a variety of health issues, from cancer to liver disease to depression, the team points out. The harmful use of alcohol is also responsible for roughly three million deaths worldwide each year, a number that represents 5.3 percent of all deaths.

In the United States, excessive alcohol consumption contributed to one in eight deaths of adults between the ages of 20 and 64, from 2015 to 2019. The number was even higher for Americans ages 20 to 49, with alcohol to blame for about one in five deaths.

Past studies have found that an array of environmental factors influence how much alcohol consumers drink, including advertising and glass size. The researchers were curious to know whether serving size availability at bars and pubs could also have an effect.

They partnered with 21 bars and pubs in England, which agreed to remove the largest serving size of wine by the glass—typically 250 milliliters, or roughly 8.5 ounces—from their menus for four weeks. Wine is the most popular alcoholic beverage in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe, so the researchers deemed it a good test subject.

After controlling for other factors, the team found that wine consumption dropped by an average of 420 milliliters per day at each pub, a 7.6 percent decrease. Drinkers ordered smaller glasses of wine, but they did not order more glasses to make up the difference—they simply got by with a little less wine, the study suggests.

“People tend to consume a specific number of units—in this case glasses—regardless of portion size,” says study co-author Eleni Mantzari, a behavioral scientist at the University of Cambridge, in a statement. “So, someone might decide at the outset they’ll limit themselves to a couple of glasses of wine, and with less alcohol in each glass, they drink less overall.”

Sales of beer and cider did not increase, suggesting would-be wine drinkers were not simply switching to these products. However, the team wasn’t able to track how much of other types of alcohol were sold.

A few patrons did complain at four of the 21 participating pubs. But, by and large, drinkers simply adapted to the change.

“[Customers] said, ‘I’ll just have another one,’ but actually they didn’t,” says Charlotte Lyster, owner of the Prince Albert pub in Stroud, to BBC News’ Aurelia Foster. “People drink in rounds—so when they finished one, they would wait for someone else to go to the bar.”

The participating bars and pubs didn’t lose money, likely because they earn higher profit margins on smaller servings of wine, per the statement.

Policymakers, however, might have a harder time if they tried to implement a similar initiative on a broader scale. The alcohol industry would likely push back, the researchers note.

“Whilst we are vocally supportive of measures to increase moderation among drinkers, there should be more efforts to increase consumer choice in this area rather than to unnecessarily restrict it,” says Matt Lambert, CEO of the Portman Group, a trade group representing alcoholic beverage producers in the U.K., to the Independent’s Nina Massey.

Would such a serving size change work for other types of alcohol? That remains an open question—and one that may not be answered any time soon, at least not in England. The researchers tried to conduct a similar real-world study on beer, but after contacting nearly 2,000 pubs, bars or restaurants, they could not find a single establishment willing to participate. (They had wanted to replace standard pint glasses with vessels that were two-thirds the size.)

“This likely reflects that the pint has been the customary serving size for beer in the U.K. for centuries,” they write in the paper. “In contrast, it was not until relatively recently that licensed premises started serving 250 ml glasses of wine.”

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