Analysis: Alcohol guideline changes are due to facts, not nanny state

New limits have been suggested on the consumption of beer.
New limits have been suggested on the consumption of beer.
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Alcohol support workers in Yorkshire deny that new guidelines, on drinks’ consumption, are too strict. The guidelines have been reviewed for the first time in 20 years.

The recommended limit, for men and women who drink regularly, is now no more than 14 units per week. That figure represents six pints of beer or seven glasses of wine. Pregnant women should not drink at all.

Those changes are significant ones. Since 1995, doctors’ groups had been advising that men should limit themselves to 21 units and women to 14 - but now there is no gender difference. Previously, pregnant women in the UK were told not to drink but, if they did, to limit it - but that last part has become stricter.

There is also a change in the time span of the guidelines; focusing on weekly, rather than daily consumption. The previous guidance had set out daily drinking limits of three to four units for men and two to three for women. The new weekly-focused guidelines move away from the idea that drinking every day is fine. They say that if people drink, it should be moderately over three or more days and that some days should be alcohol-free. People should also not “save up” their units and drink them all in one or two goes, according to the guidelines.

Michael Ng, of Sheffield alcohol support services, said: “It’s quite a positive reaction from us. As an organisation, we think it’s a step forward in raising awareness. It makes clear the risks. The new guidelines are very evidence-based.

“The initial reaction of some people might be ‘oh my gosh, it’s a nanny state’. But, when you delve into the evidence, then people will take it on board. All you can do is give people the correct information to show that.”

In the report, Dame Sally Davies took into account new evidence on the increased risk of developing cancer from alcohol as well as the harm from binge-drinking. Low and moderate alcohol consumption has been linked with cancers, including breast, mouth and bowel. There are also associations made between drinking and conditions such as heart disease, liver disease, and epilepsy.

When publishing this research, the UK’s chief medical officers warned that no level of regular drinking is without risks, with even small to moderate amounts leading to risk of illness. Previous claims that red wine has health benefits have also been dismissed, being branded as an “old wives’ tale”.

Whether the public heeds all the advice remains to be seen. The message, though, is certainly a strong one.