New alcohol advice issued

Behind the Headlines

Friday January 8 2016

Claims that alcohol is beneficial for the heart have been disputed by new evidence

The guidelines suggest a limit of 14 units per week

New proposed guidelines on alcohol, drawn up by the Chief Medical Officers of the UK, have been published today.

The expert group that produced the guidelines looked at the body of new evidence about the potential harms of alcohol that has emerged since the previous guidelines were published in 1995.

There are three main issues on which revised or new guidance is given:

  • guidance on regular drinking
  • guidance on single drinking sessions
  • guidance on drinking in pregnancy

 

Regular drinking

The guidance advises that:

  • to keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level you are safest not regularly drinking more than 14 units per week – 14 units is equivalent to a bottle and a half of wine or five pints of export-type lager (5% abv) over the course of a week – this applies to both men and women
  • if you do drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread this evenly over three days or more
  • if you have one or two heavy drinking sessions, you increase your risks of death from long-term illnesses and from accidents and injuries
  • the risk of developing a range of illnesses (including, for example, cancers of the mouth, throat and breast) increases with any amount you drink on a regular basis
  • if you wish to cut down the amount you're drinking, a good way to achieve this is to have several alcohol-free days each week

 

Single drinking sessions

The new proposed guidelines also look at the potential risks of single drinking sessions, which can include accidents resulting in injury (causing death in some cases), misjudging risky situations, and losing self-control.

You can reduce these risks by:

  • limiting the total amount of alcohol you drink on any occasion
  • drinking more slowly, drinking with food, and alternating alcoholic drinks with water
  • avoiding risky places and activities, making sure you have people you know around, and ensuring you can get home safely

Some groups of people are more likely to be affected by alcohol and should be more careful of their level of drinking. These include:

  • young adults
  • older people
  • those with low body weight
  • those with other health problems
  • those on medicines or other drugs

 

Drinking and pregnancy

The guidelines recommend that:

  • if you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to your baby to a minimum
  • drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby, with the more you drink the greater the risk

If you have just discovered you are pregnant and you have been drinking then you shouldn't automatically panic as it is unlikely in most cases that your baby has been affected; though it is important to avoid further drinking.

If you are worried about how much you have been drinking when pregnant, talk to your doctor or midwife.

 

Why have the guidelines been revised?

There are a number of factors that have come to light since 1995 or were thought important by the expert group so they needed to be highlighted to the public. These include:

  • The benefits of moderate drinking for heart health are not as strong as previously thought and apply to a smaller proportion of the population – specifically women over the age of 55. In addition there are more effective methods of increasing your heart health, such as exercise.
  • The risks of cancers associated with drinking alcohol were not fully understood in 1995. Taking these risks on board, we can no longer say that there is such a thing as a "safe" level of drinking. There is only a "low risk" level of drinking.
  • The previous guidelines did not address the short-term risks of drinking, especially heavy drinking, such as accidental head injury and fractures.
  • In pregnancy the expert group thought a precautionary approach was best and it should be made clear to the public that it is safest to avoid drinking in pregnancy.

Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, said: "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."

The proposed guidance comes into effect from January 8. The consultation is due to finish by April 1 2016 and will seek the public's view on how helpful and easy to use the new advice is, not the scientific basis for it.

Read more about the risks of drinking too much and advice on how to cut down on your drinking.

Edited by NHS Choices

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