Alcohol consumption may feature largely in the festive period but rising levels of drinking may be partly due to the growing size of wine glasses, particularly over the past two decades, suggests an article in the Christmas issue of The BMJ.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge studied changes in wine glass size over time and found that the capacity of wine glasses in England increased from an average of 66 mL in 1700 to 449 mL in 2017 - an almost sevenfold increase.
Alcohol is the fifth largest risk factor for early death and disability in high income countries and seventh largest worldwide.
Alcohol consumption, and wine consumption in particular, have increased sharply since the 1960s, reflecting greater affordability, availability, and marketing of alcoholic products, as well as more liberal licensing. Wine drinking rose almost fourfold during 1960-80, almost doubling again during 1980-2004.
Larger tableware is known to increase food consumption, but less is known about glassware's relation to how much we drink. So Theresa Marteau and colleagues from the University of Cambridge's Institute of Public Health set out to investigate whether changes in wine glass size over time might have contributed to the steep rise in wine drinking in the past few decades, and whether reducing wine glass size may help cut consumption.
They searched online and contacted experts in antique glassware, eventually gathering measurements for 411 glasses from five sources in England, dating from 1700 to 2017.
These sources were the wine glass collection of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford; wine glasses of The Royal Household; eBay; the catalogues of English glassware manufacturer Dartington Crystal; and the website of department store John Lewis.
Results showed that the capacity of wine glasses in England increased significantly over the past 300 years, with a marked increase evident since the 1990s.
Wine glass capacity increased from 66 mL in the 1700s to 417 mL in the 2000s, with the average wine glass size in 2016-17 being 449 mL.
The researchers point to possible reasons for the increase in glass size since 1990. For example, demand for larger wine glasses by the US market was met by an increase in the size of glasses manufactured in England, and size was influenced by those running bars and restaurants, who sought to increase sales of wine.
The authors say they cannot infer that the increase in glass size is a direct cause of the rise in wine consumption in England, nor that reducing wine glass size would cut drinking.
Nevertheless, they suggest that along with lower prices, increased availability and marketing, "larger wine glasses may have contributed to this rise through several potentially co-occurring mechanisms."
They point to several policy options for reducing drinking outside the home as well as influencing the size of glasses people use at home - where most alcohol, including wine, is drunk. These include reducing wine glass sizes in licensed premises, encouraging retailers to price glasses according to size, and encouraging wine producers and retailers to make bottles of wine available in smaller sizes, with proportionate pricing.
Finally, they predict that these suggestions are likely to prove more popular with the general public in January than in December.