UK alcohol guidance ‘out of line’ with Europe

The drinks trade has reacted to new guidance on alcohol consumption which has seen the recommended weekly allowance for men drop by seven units to the same level as women, putting UK advice “out of line” with Europe and reclassifying a new group of men as “at risk” drinkers.


England’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies

Previous NHS guidance, published in 1995, advised that men should not drink no more than three to four units a day – up to 21 units or less a week – while women should not drink more than two to three units a day, or up to 14 units a week. New guidelines published today have lowered the recommended intake for men to the same level as women, which equates to six pints of average strength beer or seven glasses of wine a week.

Led by England’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies, the report claims that any amount of drinking increases the risk of a range of cancers and that there is “no safe level” of drinking for women who are pregnant, reducing previous guidance for pregnant women from no more than one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week.

The report also called into question the widely reported health benefits of drinking red wine derived from resveratrol – an antioxidant found in the skins of red grapes – claiming that the benefits only apply to women ages 55 and over.

Drinking guidelines now ‘out of line’ with Europe

Reacting to the new guidelines this morning Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, stressed that a recommendation of 14 units per week for men put the UK “well out of line” with comparable countries including the US, which advises 24.5, France 26, Italy 31.5 and Spain 35 units a week.

“In other countries, most guidelines recognise the difference in terms of physiology and metabolism between men and women”, she added.

Simmonds also noted that instances of harmful drinking are falling in the UK. Between 2005–13, men drinking over the previously recommended guidelines dropped from 41% to 34% and women from 33% to 26%.

“We want to study the evidence fully, but it is important that consumers have confidence in any guidelines and the reasons for any changes are clearly evidence-based and explained”, said said. “Reducing the guidelines means that a whole new group of males are classified as ‘at risk’ drinkers and there is a real danger that consumers will just ignore the advice.”

Labelling advice made out of date overnight

Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Association, also highlighted a drop in alcohol consumption in the UK, which has fallen by 19% since 2004. This he said has been due in part to the industry’s efforts to promote responsible drinking, alongside the government, and voluntary measures taken to improve unit labelling of alcohol through the government-backed Responsibility Deal. Beale criticised the government’s lack of consultation with the trade regarding the new guidelines, which have made producers’ efforts to improve unit labelling on their products pointless given that such labelling is now inaccurate.

“20 years after the original guidelines were issued, and following a two year wait, we are surprised that the guidelines are expected to take effect immediately”, he said. “Given the significant progress made voluntarily through the Responsibility Deal we are disappointed that the industry has not been involved.

“The drinks industry working with government has voluntarily exceeded an 80% target delivering the current CMO guidelines on alcohol labelling. This was achieved ahead of schedule and at no public cost. This labelling advice is out of date overnight.”

WSTA cheif executive Miles Beale is pressuring the chancellor to make cuts to wine and spirits

Miles Beale, chief excutive of the WSTA

Social benefits of responsible drinking ignored

Mike Benner, managing director of the Society for Independent Brewers (SIBA) said it was “clearly important” for the industry to consider the scientific evidence behind the new guidelines, but that many men who regularly consume between 14 and 21 units of alcohol a week “will be surprised to suddenly find themselves in an ‘at risk’ category”.

“This may affect the guidelines’ credibility with many responsible drinkers, not least because they are significantly lower than guidelines in various other countries”, he said.

“It’s also the case that the wider benefits on wellbeing and happiness which stem from the the responsible enjoyment of alcohol in a sociable environment such as a pub have been ignored and the industry and others need to work together to bring evidence to support this view to the fore. Enjoying a couple of beers in a pub with friends and colleagues at the end of a hard day can bring positive benefits to peoples’ lives.”

Figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre for December 2015 reveal that 77% of adults currently drink 14 units a week or fewer, placing their consumption within or below the new guidelines. By gender 68% of men already drink 14 units a week or fewer, while 85% of women drink 14 units a week or fewer.

UK breaking with established international precedent

“The vast majority of us – more than four in five adults – drink within the current lower risk guidelines”, said Henry Ashworth, chief executive of The Portman Group.

“Guidelines are important because they help people make informed choices about their own drinking so it’s vital that they are trusted and understood by consumers. What is surprising is that the UK is breaking with established international precedent by recommending the same guidelines for men and women. It also means that UK men are now being advised to drink significantly less than their European counterparts.”

Justifying the changes Dame Sally Davies said the new guidelines are aimed at keeping the risk of mortality from cancers or other diseases low, adding that the links between alcohol and cancer “were not fully understood in the original guidelines, which came out in 1995”.

“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”, she said.

Predicting that the guidelines will one day be reduced to zero Christopher Snowdon, researcher at the Institute of Economic Affairs, posted a blog responding to the changes this morning, which traces the historical tightening of alcohol limits by the government over the past 60 years from a bottle of wine a day in 1960 (the equivalent of up to 70 units a week) to today’s 14 units a week.

“Most men will find their new 14 unit ‘limit’ laughable and rightly ignore it but guidelines are not really designed for the public”, he wrote. “They are designed for ‘public health’ campaigners. The effect of today’s change will be to drag hundreds of thousands of people into the at-risk category and revive the flagging narrative of Booze Britain.”

You can read more on his thoughts here.

5 Responses to “UK alcohol guidance ‘out of line’ with Europe”

  1. Anthony Begg says:

    Whilst I don’t generally drink anywhere near 14 units per week, all the same I find it ridiculous to suggest that male and female limits are the same – body makeup is very different.

    Rather than lazily changing, as they have, and making wide ranging comments, a proper study of the effects should have been made. By intimating that relatively harmless drinking is a greater potential health risk, they have by default over looked those who would have most benefitted from a more detailed assessment.

  2. Hugo Rose MW says:

    The industry needs to respond in a measured way to this announcement, but it MUST respond. One thing it should do is not perpetuate the falsehood that the Government has set new limits. The wording is ‘advised not to regularly exceed…’. The more we use the term ‘limits’, the sooner they could become just that. Already GPs are applying the existing guidelines in health checks: it is no longer simply a matter of personal judgement.

    By the way, I often ‘exceed’ the threshold level: its my choice.

  3. Frank Ward says:

    Alcoholics and binge-drinkers are a case apart, to be looked at separately. This is about the rest of us, who drink good wine moderately (or fairly moderately!). As Dr Michael Apstein has pointed out, much depends on the age, sex, metabolism, and capacity of the individual. These vary enormously. Some can drink a bottle of wine a day and thrive. Others are knocked sideways by a thimbleful. My argument is that most damage caused by alcohol is ascribable to strong spirits, alcopops and the like, and low-grade wine produced on an industrial scale. What amazes me is that the health “experts” make no distinction between alcohol in its different forms (afraid of the spirits lobby?). Yet the differences are crucial. Countless medical studies have shown that wine in general, and red wine in particular, are uniquely beneficial when consumed in moderate quantities. But there are reds and reds. I doubt if mass-produced kinds, denuded of tannins, bereft of resveratrol, do any good. Of all alcohols, only wine – good wine – can truly be called a medicine (which is how the great Pasteur characterised it). In short, drink (and eat) the Mediterranean way!

    For the need to eat when drinking is of overriding importance. This is beneficial in many ways, not least as it delays the entry of alcohol into the blood stream. And nature has seen to it that food and wine each taste better when consumed together, aiding digestion while producing a genuine sense of well-being. Yet the authorities give little stress to this crucial factor, which ought to form a central part of their campaign against mindless drinking-to-get-drunk.

  4. Matthew Hudson says:

    Some contextualisation of this is given here

    But it takes two statisticians and two learned epidemiologists 10 minutes to do!

  5. Theraphim says:

    As a health care professional previously running an alcohol harm reduction service, I see this measure as lacking credibility and will actually cause people to switch off and totally ignore Public Health England. I believe that the Chief Medical Officer is using her political Feminist agenda to influence public policy and NOT sound science. I had occasion to counsel a massively built rugby player on cutting down his deinking. At the old guidelines of 21 to 28 upw it was realistic and made sense considering his gender and build. His girlfriend who came with him was a slightly built lady. If I told him he could only drink the same as his girlfriend per week he would have laughed or worse and walked out!
    I cannot in all good conscience pass on the Chief Medical Officer’s advice to the public as I believe it to be deeply flawed in respect of half of the population, males. They should have reduced the guidelines to 21 for men and 14 for women in consideration of biological gender differences and good science.

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