Wine: the larger the glass, the more you drink

by | 20 December 2017 | Public health, Wellbeing

A recent study shows wine glasses have grown substantially over the decades, with a public health impact as people consume more alcohol.

The size of wine glasses in England has increased sevenfold over the past 300 years.

’Tis the season

The Christmas season is upon us. For many people, this means going out for Christmas parties, catching up with old friends and getting together with family. In doing so, we may raise a glass or two. This season, take a moment to turn your eye to those clinking wine glasses. During my Master’s degree, I worked on a paper that has just been published in the BMJ. We found that the size of wine glasses in England has increased sevenfold over the past 300 years. This rise has been steepest in the last two decades, as wine consumption has risen. This raises the question of whether downsizing wine glasses might reduce consumption – bringing clear health benefits.

Wine glasses through the years

Wine glasses from the early 17th century were far smaller than they are today. They were usually kept on the sideboard and brought by one’s butler when one wanted to make a toast. But as glass became less brittle, with the invention of lead crystal glass by George Ravenscroft in the late 17th century, glasses became more extravagant in their design. Wine glasses began to move to the table and, gradually, glass size started to increase.

This size increase of wine glasses parallels the explosion of the middle class associated with the industrial revolution. This new middle class created a huge wine market.

If someone perceives a glass as mostly empty, they are less likely to feel satisfied after drinking it than they would if they drank the same volume from a full, smaller glass.

Size matters

While wine glass size was already gradually rising, there was a sharp increase in the late 20th century. This is probably due to demand from the US market, and the promotion of larger wine glasses by bars to boost profits. A recent study showed that larger wine glasses have been associated with increased sales.

Humans consume in units: one cup of tea, one chocolate bar or one glass of wine. People tend to drink a glass of wine regardless of its volume, because they regard one glass as a whole unit. If someone perceives a glass as mostly empty, they are less likely to feel satisfied after drinking it than they would if they drank the same volume from a full, smaller glass. This means people may be more likely to have a second or third glass when they are drinking ‘unsatisfying’ portions from a large glass.

Designing our environment

For years, marketing has been designing the environment around us, through product placement and design to increase our consumption – sometimes to the detriment of our health and wellbeing.

But this can work the other way around. Health promotion campaigns can use the same method to design the environment around us to ‘nudge’ people to make healthier choices. We can use design to de-incentivise ‘bad’ health choices, thus making ‘good’ health choices the reflex option.

If policymakers were to regulate wine glass sizes as part of licensing regulations, we might feel more satisfied after our small-but-full glass of wine at the pub. This could mean we order fewer glasses and, ultimately, drink less – a welcome boost to our health and wellbeing, particularly in the festive season.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of The Health Policy Partnership.