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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.

Dame_Sally_Davies_FMedSci_DBE_FRS
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.

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