Drink limits: more ‘clarity’ but controversy continues

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colinvalentineThe government has published the final version of its revised alcohol guidelines, stating that both men should and women should drink no more than 14 units per week.

The draft guidelines were issued at the start of the year (DDN, February, page 4) drawing criticism from parts of the media both of the levels themselves and some of the language used, such as that there was no safe level of drinking.

Although the guidelines took effect in January the Department of Health launched a consultation to see what the public felt about their ‘clarity, expression and usability’, while Public Health England carried out its own research into reactions to the document’s tone and language. The new report states that the intention is to help people understand the potential health risks and make ‘decisions about their consumption in the light of those risks’, but not to ‘prevent those who want to drink alcohol from doing so’. Chief medical officer Sally Davies drew criticism from some newspapers when she told a commons select committee earlier this year that she takes ‘a decision’ each time she ‘reached for a glass of wine’ – ‘Do I want the glass of wine or do I want to raise my own risk of breast cancer?’

The new document states that for those drinking at or above the ‘low risk level advised’, the risk of dying from an alcohol-related condition would be expected to be ‘at least 1 per cent’ over a lifetime, making it comparable to ‘those posed by other everyday activities that people understand are not completely safe yet still undertake’. However, the expert group was also ‘clear that there are a number of serious diseases, including certain cancers, which can occur even when drinking within the weekly guideline’, meaning there is ‘no level of regular drinking that can be considered as completely safe in relation to some cancers’.

Alcohol Concern chief executive Joanna Simons said the guidelines were based on the views of independent doctors studying 20 years’ worth of evidence and represented ‘the maximum amount we can drink each week with little risk to our health’, calling for a mass media campaign to make sure they were widely understood. Industry body the Portman Group, however, said that while the new document ‘provided much-needed clarity’ it was ‘regrettable’ that it still included a reference to there being no safe level of drinking, while the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) said that the guidance did not provide consumers with a ‘fully objective picture’ and failed the ‘common sense test’.

A YouGov survey commissioned by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), meanwhile, found that more than half the public ‘disagree’ with the guidelines, with more than 60 per cent of respondents believing that ‘moderate alcohol consumption could be part of a healthy lifestyle’ and over 50 per cent disagreeing with the decision to make the guidelines the same for men and women. ‘If the public feels, as our figures suggest, that the guidelines are not credible and lack evidence, the danger is they will increasingly just ignore them,’ said CAMRA chair Colin Valentine.

UK chief medical officers’ low risk drinking guidelines, and How to keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level: Government response to the public consultation at www.gov.uk