Shaken, not stirred: new guidelines on alcohol consumption attract a mixed response

Alcoholic Cocktail

New advice from the UK’s Chief Medical Officers warns that drinking even small quantities of alcohol on a regular basis can increase the risk of developing cancer - in particular mouth, throat, bowel and breast cancer - and other serious diseases including liver and cardiovascular disease.

The new guidance, supported by a new review from the Committee on Carcinogenity (CoC) on alcohol and cancer risk, is said to be based on a detailed review of the most up-to-date scientific evidence and has been underway since 2013, led by a panel of experts in alcohol studies, public health and behavioural science.

Panel Chairman Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says the new guidance is “firmly based” on science with analysis of a wide range of evidence from the UK and overseas, but adds that consideration was also given to what is likely to be acceptable.

The new guidance recommends both men and women should drink no more than 14 units per week, equivalent to 14 single shots of spirits, seven standard glasses of wine or six pints of beer. It also urges drinkers to consider setting aside a few ‘alcohol-free’ days each week and also advises pregnant women to avoid alcohol altogether.

Previous guidance, introduced in 1995, suggested a daily limit of 2-3 units for women and 3-4 for men, which some critics believe may have resulted in the perception that it is acceptable and safe to drink alcohol every day, however the new guidelines are clear that there is no such thing as regular ‘safe’ alcohol consumption. This advice was updated in 2007 to recommend pregnant women abstain but those who still choose to drink should consume no more than 1-2 units up to twice a week. The new guidance recommends total abstinence during pregnancy.

The new advice also cautions against ‘saving up’ the weekly allowance for a weekly drinking binge, as this been linked to an increased risk of death from accidents and injuries associated with binge drinking, as well as an increased risk of disease.

Health benefits?

Past studies have suggested that there may be some health benefits attached to drinking red wine, however the review found that benefits to heart health only applied to women aged over 55 who limit their intake to five units a week – equivalent to two standard glasses of wine.

Red Wine

Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, says: “Drinking any level of alcohol regularly carries a health risk for anyone, but if men and women limit their intake to no more than 14 units a week it keeps the risk of illness like cancer and liver disease low.”

Bacon sandwiches ‘more dangerous’

Professor David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, University of Cambridge, says the new guidelines “define ‘low-risk’ drinking as giving you less than a 1% chance of dying from an alcohol-related condition”. He adds: “An hour of TV watching a day, or a bacon sandwich a couple of times a week, is more dangerous to your long-term health. In contrast, an average driver faces much less than this lifetime risk from a car accident. It all seems to come down to what pleasure you get from moderate drinking.”

Abstinence during pregnancy still the 'safest option'

Professor Alan Cameron, Vice President of Clinical Quality for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), says it is the responsibility of healthcare professionals to be “open and honest with women”, adding: “Consistent with our advice, abstinence from alcohol is the safest option, in particular for women trying to conceive or during the first three months of pregnancy.”

Pregnant Woman

Dr Niamh Fitzgerald, Lecturer in Alcohol Studies at the University of Stirling says the public have the right to expect clear information on the risks of alcohol and explains that while most people are aware of the clear link between smoking and cancer, people are less aware of the link between alcohol and cancer. She adds: “This is not a crackdown on alcohol, it is about supporting people to make up their own minds”.

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Georgie Fenn, writes most of our news articles and social media posts.