Huge gap between Irish, and other EU states, and UK on ‘safer’ drink limits
By Adam Shaw
Men in Britain are being told they should drink considerably less – 14 units of alcohol a week – than those in Ireland (21.2 units) every week under new guidelines issued by the UK’s chief medical officers.
The new UK limits are far below those in the US (24.5) Denmark (21), New Zealand (19), Italy (31.5) and much less than the recommended upper limit for men in Spain (35).
They mean this country now has one of the one of the lowest recommended upper limits for alcohol consumption by men in the world. The medical officers say alcohol consumption greatly increases the risks of contracting any one of several different cancers. A unit in the UK is equivalent to 8g of pure alcohol. The new guidelines equate to five pints of beer at 5 per cent alcohol by volume (abv).
The guidelines update previous ones set in 1995, which said that men should be limited to 21 units or less of alcohol per week. The total recommended for women remains unchanged at 14 units.
At a stroke it means the number of men in this country at “increasing risk” rises from 16 per cent to 26 per cent, or 2 million. The 14-unit limit for women remains in line with international standards. It is higher than the advised limits in the US (12.3) and Denmark (10.5) and roughly on par with Ireland.
Britain now joins Australia, where the guideline amount is 2.5 units (20g of pure alcohol) on any given day, in being one of the few countries to have parity for men and women. France has no official guidelines but does suggest an upper limit of 26 units. These are the first significant changes to official alcohol consumption recommendations in 20 years.
Men have been advised to cut their weekly alcohol intake from 21 units to 14, a figure that roughly equates to six pints of beer, nine small glasses of wine or 14 single measures of spirit. At the same time, pregnant women are told to stave off alcohol entirely, whereas previously, no more than one to two units, once or twice a week, was deemed acceptable.
Medical officers also declared that there was no “safe” limit for either sex and that any consumption of alcohol increases the risk of developing a range of cancers, particularly breast cancer.
“Drinking any level of alcohol regularly carries a health risk for anyone, but if men and women limit their intake to no more than 14 units a week it keeps the risk of illness like cancer and liver disease low,”
Dame Sally Davies, the 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 new recommended limit for men, which is now the same as for women, is one of the lowest among countries that issue guidance on the appropriate level of beer, wine and spirit intake.
In data collected by the Department of Health, Ireland and France put their low risk weekly level of alcohol consumption at 26 units for men and 18 for women.
Denmark issues maximum weekly intake guidelines at 32 and 21 units, respectively. The UK also joins only a handful of countries that issue identical advice for both sexes.
The updated suggestions put an emphasis on risk and how the amount you drink corresponds to your chances of suffering an alcohol-related death. For example, consuming 28 units a week puts the chance of dying from alcohol at five per cent for a man and eight per cent for a woman. In evidence gathered by Dame Sally, the risk of dying from drink passes one in ten at 42 weekly units for males and 35 for females.
Since there is no “safe” level of drinking, she believes that her recommended levels involve a sense of judgement of what one deems to be acceptable. She sets her own personal level at around a one per cent lifetime chance of dying from a condition caused by alcohol.
But experts have commented that most aspects of daily life pose some form of danger and it really boils down to how much people value the enjoyment they get from drinking. Matt Field, professor of addiction at the University of Liverpool, said: “It is important to bear in mind that most activities that people undertake on a daily basis, like driving to work, carry some risk.”
Sir David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, added: “So should we feel okay about risks of this level?
“An hour of TV watching a day, or a bacon sandwich a couple of times a week, is more dangerous to your longterm health. “In contrast, an average driver faces much less than this lifetime risk from a car accident. “It all seems to come down to what pleasure you get from moderate drinking.”
Medical officers advised that people should drink slowly, alternating with water if needed, and accompanied with food. They stressed the need for several alcohol-free days per week and for drinkers to spread their intake over a few days, rather than “save” their units for binge drinking. The new information also quashes the claim that moderate intakes of alcohol are good for your health.
A study, from which the guidelines were composed, found that drinking is only beneficial for women aged over 55 and that benefits are maximised when they limit their intake to five units a week – roughly two standard glasses of wine. Meanwhile doctors warned that an increase in “heavy” drinking among older people is creating a “timebomb” for the NHS.
More older people are admitted to hospital in England every year for mental and behavioural disorders related to alcohol use than for alcohol related liver disease. And the number of people aged 60-74 who are treated as in-patients for mental or behavioural disorder – including alcohol dependence and withdrawal – has almost doubled over the past decade.
Furthermore, an increasing number of over-60s are being hospitalised with Korsakoff syndrome, alcohol-related brain damage similar to dementia. It involves acute loss of memory caused by long-term heavy drinking and is irreversible.
“The number of older people drinking unsafely and unhealthily is rising at an alarming rate, putting their health at risk and further strain on NHS services,” said Dr Tony Rao, Britain’s leading expert on older people’s drinking.
A statement from the Portman Group, which represents the alcohol industry, said: “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 being advised to drink significantly less than their European counterparts.”