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No 'safe' limit: Alcohol Health Alliance responds to new CMO drinking guidelines

Strengthening evidence of the link between alcohol and cancer is just one of a number of reasons which has led the UK’s Chief Medical Officers to recommend a tightening of the drinking guidelines.

The new guidelines, based on recommendations from a group of independent experts who carried out the first comprehensive review of the advice in 20 years, have been welcomed by the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA), which represents over 40 organisations with an interest in reducing the harm caused by alcohol.

In welcoming the announcement, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the AHA, said: “The new guidelines from the CMOs are based on evidence that the risks of getting a range of cancers increase at low levels of alcohol consumption. New evidence also shows there are no grounds to recommend drinking on health grounds.”

The new recommendations, which bring the UK into line with countries like Australia and Canada, say it is safest for both men and women not to drink regularly more than 14 units of alcohol a week if they want to keep health risks to a low level. Fourteen units is the equivalent of half a bottle of whisky.

They also state it is advisable to spread the units evenly over three days or more, warning that one or two heavy drinking sessions increase the risk of death from long term illnesses and from accidents and injuries.

Professor Gilmore, who sat on the group advising the CMOs, added: “People have a right to know the risks associated with drinking alcohol. Only with accurate and transparent information are people able to make an informed choice about how much alcohol they consume.”

According to Katherine Brown, Director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, too many people are currently unaware of the risks they are exposing themselves to by drinking too much: “Worryingly, the AHA’s recent survey of public opinion showed that only around one in two people are aware that drinking alcohol increases your cancer risk. That figure falls to as low as one in three for breast cancer.

“We call on the Government to make it compulsory to include health warning labels on alcohol products and to adequately fund mass media campaigns which make it clear the risks people run if they choose to drink above the recommended guidelines.”

The CMOs have also said that it is safest to avoid drinking in pregnancy, a message which has been warmly welcomed by organisations representing parents whose children are affected by a range of conditions caused by being exposed to alcohol while in the womb.

A range of health bodies and charities have lined up to support the CMOs’ new recommendations.

Commenting on the guidelines Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK's expert on cancer prevention, said: "The link between alcohol and cancer is now well established, and it's not just heavy drinkers who are at risk. There is no 'safe' level of drinking when it comes to cancer - the less you drink, the lower your risk.

“Many people still don't know that alcohol increases the risk of seven types of cancer, including breast, mouth and bowel cancers. Drinking levels in the UK are almost double what they were in 1960, so it's vital we invest in national health campaigns to provide people with clear information about the health risks of drinking alcohol, particularly at levels above these new guidelines.

“Much more needs to be done to reduce the impact of alcohol on health, and these guidelines are a welcome step in the right direction. Having at least two consecutive alcohol free days a week is a good way to start cutting back on the booze and it's better for your liver. Also try making every other drink a soft one or water, instead of an alcoholic one."

Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, said: “This is a real step in the right direction on alcohol in the UK. We welcome the CMO’s recommendation as we’ve known for some time that regularly drinking alcohol increases your risk of developing breast cancer.

“There is unfortunately no ‘safe’ alcohol limit when it comes to increasing one’s cancer risk. It’s imperative that men and women fully understand the risks involved and that clear information about the alcohol content of all drinks is now provided. Importantly, while you cannot change some things that affect your breast cancer risk, such as getting older, alcohol is not only one of the most important factors but it is one you really can do something about.”

The current guidelines, which were introduced in 1995, took into account evidence which at the time indicated that drinking make have some protective effects on the heart, a position which has changed in the past 20 years.


For IAS Director Katherine Brown's take on the alcohol guidelines, please read her Comment is Free article 'We need the truth about alcohol – it should be labelled, just like food' in The Guardian.