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Should Britain Mandate Smaller Wine Glass Sizes?

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Is it an example of being a nanny state, or of the government protecting the long-term interests of citizens, if the government regulates the size of wine glasses which bars are allowed to use? There are good arguments on both sides and while my first inclination frankly is to go with the first, I have to say that my sympathies have gradually shifted towards the latter.

In Great Britain, Liberal Democrat Greg Mulholland — MP for Leeds North West — is proposing that Parliament reinstate the traditional 125ml wine drinking glass because the current wine glasses have gotten so large that customers are no longer "aware of how many units of alcohol they are drinking." Larger glasses are being offered as a better "value," but they are so large that customers end up drinking massive amounts of wine.


The MP, a Lib Dem health spokesman, said: "In the last few years there has been a deliberate move by many bar and pub companies to phase out the traditional standard size 125ml glass of wine, and only sell the larger 175ml and 250ml size.

"In the latter case this is almost half a pint of wine."

He added: "The result inevitably has been that wine drinkers are less aware of how many units of alcohol they are drinking when they have 'a few of glasses of wine'.

"This is a real concern at a time when the figures show that alcohol related health problems are increasing, including women who drink the majority of wine purchased in bars and pubs."

Source: BBC

So wine is being served in amounts that are more dangerous, and alcohol-related health problems are increasing. But will smaller glasses cause people to drink less?


Jo Caddy, a 35-year-old account manager who cradled a large white wine at The Goose pub in central London, said smaller glasses hold far too little.

"I'd probably drink a bit quick and then I'd have to drink another one," she said.

Danny Blackmore, 31, manager of The Printer's Devil, another central London pub, said British culture, not glass size, is the problem.

"You can serve them jugs or you can serve them thimbles, if they're going out to get drunk they'll get drunk," he said.

Source: Daily Vidette

So, is this a case of the state running amok to protect people from themselves, or a case of the state trying to protect legitimate, long-term interests of the people?


Nanny State for Wine Glasses?

There are obvious reasons to think that this is another example of trying to expand the "nanny state." Why should the government regulate the size of wine glasses — except, perhaps, to establish standard sizes so you know you aren't getting cheated by mislabeling? Why should the government tell bars that they can't serve me wine in a larger glass? If I want to drink a certain amount of wine, why can't I do so with one or two glasses instead of being forced to order four or five?

It seems like an egregious abuse of power for the government to get involved with my decision about how much to drink and a pub's decision about what size glass to serve my wine in. Even worse is the fact — known to wine drinkers, but apparently not to MPs like Greg Mulholland — that some wines need to be served in larger glasses in order to be appreciated properly. These large glasses shouldn't be filled, obviously, but they need to be used. I'm not going to pay for an expensive wine then sit there and drink it in a tiny glass.


Protecting Citizens

If it's true that people simply think of "a glass" of wine and not about the actual amounts, then there is a good case to be made for the idea that the government has a legitimate role in protecting citizens. One error made by those complaining about the "nanny state" is assuming that the state should only be protecting us from the misbehavior of others and never protecting us from ourselves and our own misbehavior.

There is, in fact, a good case to be made for the idea that part of setting up a government entails ceding to the government some control over our short-term decisions for the sake of our long-term interests. People are notoriously irrational at times, making awful decisions which seem to fulfill short-term desires but risking or sacrificing much more important long-term interests.

One extreme example of this are helmet laws for motorcycle riders. There are objections to the helmets on a variety of grounds — some relating to comfort and others relating to safety. Laws requiring helmets override these short-term desires in favor of the long-term interest people have in not dying or becoming vegetables. Laws mandating smaller wine glasses are not as serious and don't deal with threats that seem as serious, but they can be justified on similar grounds.


Human Decision-Making

Tasty Fever points out something important:

I can’t help but draw similarities to the wine consumption sizing issue to that of the sizing issues we have in the United States with food. It’s well-known that portions have gotten larger in many restaurants, especially those national and regional chains, and there have been dietitians who have pointed out that the more on the plate, the more we eat.

It may also be true for alcohol for people; I know it’s true for me when I’m unable to measure the amount of, say, beer I’m drinking because rather than the standard bottles, I’m drinking from a large 1.5 litre bottle of La Chouffe.

The parallel here is significant: although people like Jo Caddy say that they would "probably" drink more glasses of wine if wine were served in smaller glasses, studies have been quite conclusive that people eat less food when food is served on smaller plates. I'm sure that Caddy and like-minded people are sincere, but I think they don't realize the degree to which their decision-making process is influenced by outside factors.

The assumption seems to be that a person makes a conscious decision to get drunk and then pursues whatever series of actions are necessary to achieve that goal. This, however, is far too linear and simplistically rational — human behavior is more complex, depends on many unconscious decisions we're never aware of, and of course external influences we never conscious think about.

Are there people who would end up drinking more glasses of wine? Probably. Would others end up drinking less? I'm certain of it — the evidence from other contexts is too strong.

Instead of trying to attract customers with bigger glasses, bars and restaurants should try improving the quality of what they serve in those glasses as well as the atmosphere they offer in their establishment. Quality, not quantity, would enhance a customer base without also endangering customers' health.

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