By Kate Bass, BSc
UK guidelines for alcohol consumption have been revised to bring them in line with current research findings. The revised guidelines, published today, state that there is not a safe limit for alcohol intake and that the risks are similar for men and women. For those people (male or female) unwilling to become teetotal, weekly alcohol intake should not exceed 14 units (around 6 pints of beer or a bottle and a half of wine).
The previous guidelines had been in force for over 20 years, and experts have been raising concerns that they were no longer appropriate. Knowledge regarding the links between alcohol and cancer and heart disease has increased significantly during that time. The guidelines have thus been revised to try and minimize the risk of mortality from cancers or other diseases.
Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who helped revise the guidelines explained "We have reviewed all the evidence thoroughly and our guidance is firmly based on the science, but we also considered what is likely to be acceptable as a low risk level of drinking and the need to have a clear message".
The new guidelines for alcohol consumption plainly state that drinking even small amounts of alcohol increases the risk of a range of cancers, and the greater the alcohol intake the greater that risk becomes. This is in stark contrast to the superseded guidelines, which said there was generally a low risk of causing harm if women drank no more than 2-3 units of alcohol a day and men no more than 3-4 units. Recent research also indicates that alcohol-linked health risks do not differ between men and women.
Consequently, the latest guidelines recommend that neither men nor women should drink more than 14 units of alcohol (that is the equivalent of approximately 6 pints of average strength beer or 7 small glasses of wine) each week. Keeping alcohol intake within this limit will mean a low risk of illnesses such as liver disease or cancer. However, even when drinking within the advised limits, the risk of death from long term illnesses increases if the whole weekly entitlement of alcohol is consumed over 1‑2 days; alcohol consumption should be spread thinly across the week, ideally with some alcohol-free days.
Furthermore, it was understood that regular small intakes of alcohol, and in particular red wine, could impart health benefits. However, a review of the most recent research has shown that heart health is only improved by alcohol (around two glasses of wine a week) in women aged 55 or over. Consequently, it is now concluded that there is no justification for drinking alcohol for health reasons.
In addition, the revised guidelines state that it is not safe for any alcohol to be consumed during pregnancy. Previous advice was for pregnant women to limit alcohol intake to no more than 1 to 2 units of alcohol once or twice per week.
Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, said "Drinking any level of alcohol regularly carries a health risk for anyone...What we are aiming to do with these guidelines is give the public the latest and most up to date scientific information so that they can make informed decisions about their own drinking and the level of risk they are prepared to take".
Sensible alcohol consumption means keeping within 14 units a week whilst limiting the total amount of alcohol drunk on any one occasion. It is also advisable for alcohol to be drunk slowly, with food and alternated with water.