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Smartphone apps could be used to help tackle binge drinking, study suggests

Smartphone apps could be used to help tackle binge drinking according to a study involving students with “unhealthy levels of alcohol use”.

Researchers found drinkers who used the Smaart app reduced the average number of binge drinking days by around three days every month. They were also able to cut the number of drinks by around 10 per cent.

An international team including researchers from King’s College London screened students from four universities in Switzerland and monitored 1,770 who consumed an average of 8.59 alcoholic drinks a week, or drank heavily for 3.53 days a month. Heavy drinking was described as having at least five standard alcoholic drinks for men and four for women.

A standard alcoholic drink in Switzerland contains 10 to 12 grams of ethanol, the chemical name of alcohol. The UK and US equivalents are 8 grams and 14 grams respectively.

The students were separated into two groups; an intervention group of 884 that was asked to download the Smaart app in return for a gift voucher, and a comparison group of 886 that were offered a gift voucher to fill in a questionnaire, but were offered no further support. Additional vouchers were offered to students who filled out follow-up surveys at three, six and 12 months.

The app offered those in the intervention group information around the calorie content of alcoholic drinks, blood alcohol content and associated risks, as well as tool for self-monitoring and goal setting. Those who downloaded the app used it up to 403 times over the year and reported a reduction in heavy drinking, consuming 10 per cent fewer standard drinks a week and taking part in 11 per cent fewer heavy drinking days a month.

The study, published in The BMJ, found that having the smartphone app throughout the 12-month follow-up meant those who self-reported heavy drinking also required “fewer resources” than face-to-face intervention to reduce their intake.

Dr Sadie Boniface, head of Research at the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said the study had “promising results”, but that it is not the first to examine apps or digital interventions to reduce alcohol use.

She said: “It adds to a growing evidence base suggesting apps can have a small but meaningful effect. Other apps already exist and the current advice from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) is that digital interventions can be used as an add-on to existing services, but not as a replacement.”

Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “We need to remember that this is a highly educated and relatively privileged group of people and we cannot assume the results apply more generally, not least given how many of the most disadvantaged still lack digital access. Individual measures such as these cannot be a substitute for the measures we know work, addressing price, availability, and marketing, while countering the ever more ingenious efforts by the alcohol industry to increase their sales.”

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