Tough New Guidelines on Alcohol Drinking take New Research into Account

New guidelines on alcohol drinking have been issued by the UK Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies, to help people to stay healthy while enjoying a drink. The guidelines were last reviewed in 1995 and needed to be brought up to date to reflect new research.

Tough New Guidelines on Alcohol Drinking Take New Research into Account

Photo courtesy of Carina Alegre

The guidance is intended to help people drink alcohol responsibly and has recommended the same amount of units per week for both men and women: 14 units a week which is less than the previous 3-4 units per day for men and 2-3 units for women. 14 units is equivalent to a bottle and a half of wine or five pints of lager. It also recommends that the alcohol is drunk over the course of a week rather than in one evening.

The guidance suggests that one or two heavy drinking sessions increase the risk of death from accidents and injuries caused by being intoxicated, but that it can also increase the risk of developing and dying from long-term illnesses. Research has linked regular consumption of alcohol with cancer, particularly of the breast, bowel, mouth and throat. This research was not available when the previous guidelines were issued. Out of 1,000 women, 110 will develop breast cancer even if they don’t drink, however if people are drinking up to the new guidelines, then an extra 20 women will develop cancer. If the guideline limit were to be doubled, then an extra 50 women per 1,000 will contract cancer. Research shows that no matter which cancer is involved, the risks of developing the disease is raised by regularly consuming alcohol.

The risks of single drinking sessions are also taken into account by the new guidelines. The potential risks are examined including the loss of self-control, lack of awareness of danger and risk of misjudging dangerous situations and the accidents caused, some of which may cause death. Research has shown that every year 1,000 people die of intentional self-harm when drunk and 800 of those are men. Ways to reduce risks include that people going for a drink limit how many drinks they consume on one occasion, that they drink more slowly, alternating with food and drinks of water and that they avoid risky places and activities, going out with people they can trust who will make sure that they get home.

The guidance pinpoints that certain people will be more susceptible to getting drunk. These include younger and older people, people with health problems or on medicines or other drugs, or those with low body weight. Pregnant women are recommended to avoid alcohol altogether. Previous advice has recommended staying with very low levels of alcohol. The advice suggests that drinking while pregnant could cause harm to the unborn baby. The risks increase the more you drink. If you have been drinking and discover that you are pregnant, the advice is to go and see your doctor or midwife to talk it over and avoid further drinking.

Some confusion has been around the health benefits of moderate drinking, particularly to heart health. The new guidance suggests that the benefits have been overstated and are only available to women over the age of 55. It suggests that there are better ways to improve heart health including better diet and exercise.

Understanding the risks of developing cancer through more recent research has led these guidelines. The research suggests that there can no longer be considered a safe level of drinking alcohol, just a “low risk” level. The guidelines have been produced on the best research available at the current time. The proposals came in effect on January 8th 2016 and will be open to public consultation as to how easy the new advice is to use. This guidance means that the UK is leading the way in issuing the same guidelines for both men and women.

Further Reading:

Department of Health. UK Chief Medical Officers' Alcohol Guidelines Review - Summary of the proposed new guidelines (PDF, 558kb). January 2016

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