New alcohol guidelines show increased risk of cancer

New guidelines for alcohol consumption, produced by the UK Chief Medical Officers, warn that drinking any level of alcohol increases the risk of a range of cancers. This is supported by a new review from the Committee on Carcinogenicity (CoC) on alcohol and cancer risk .

It is now known that the risks start from any level of regular drinking and increase with the amount being drunk, and the new guidelines are aimed at keeping the risk of mortality from cancers or other diseases low. The links between alcohol and cancer were not fully understood in the original guidelines, which came out in 1995.

This review also found that the benefits of alcohol for heart health only apply for women aged 55 and over. The greatest benefit is seen when these women limit their intake to around 5 units a week, the equivalent of around 2 standard glasses of wine. The group concluded that there is no justification for drinking for health reasons.

These issues prompted changes to alcohol guidelines for men. Men should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol each week, the same level as for women. This equals 6 pints of average strength beer a week, which would mean a low risk of illnesses such as liver disease or cancer. The previous guidelines were 21 units for men and 14 units for women per week.

An additional recommendation is not to ‘save up’ the 14 units for 1 or 2 days, but to spread them over 3 or more days. People who have 1 or 2 heavy drinking sessions each week increase the risk of death from long term illnesses, accidents and injuries. A good way to reduce alcohol intake is to have several alcohol free days a week.

The guidelines for pregnant women have also been updated to clarify that no level of alcohol is safe to drink in pregnancy. The previous advice for pregnant women to limit themselves to no more than 1 to 2 units of alcohol once or twice per week has been removed to provide greater clarity as a precaution.

dame sallyDame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, said:

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.

I want pregnant women to be very clear that they should avoid alcohol as a precaution. Although the risk of harm to the baby is low if they have drunk small amounts of alcohol before becoming aware of the pregnancy, there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol to drink when you are pregnant.

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.

Advice on single episodes of drinking is included in the guidelines for the first time. To keep the short term health risks low:

  • limit the total amount of alcohol drunk on any one occasion
  • drink more slowly, with food and alternate with water

Guidance about a set number of units for a single occasion or day was considered. However, partly because the short term risks for individuals vary so widely, this is not currently included in the guidelines. Whether the new guidelines should include a specific number of units, as a simple number can be easier to follow than more general advice, is included in the consultation.

Commenting on the new guidelines Mike Benner, Managing Director of SIBA, the Society for Independent Brewers said: “It is clearly important for the industry to consider the scientific evidence behind the new guidelines, not least because there is a widespread recognition of evidence of certain benefits associated with moderate and responsible consumption of alcohol. I think 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 and this may affect the guidelines’ credibility with many responsible drinkers, not least because they are significantly lower than guidelines in various other countries.

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.

Britain’s independent craft breweries take pride in brewing fine high quality beers to be enjoyed by people who appreciate flavour and distinctiveness, responsibly and in moderation. I believe that, if people do respond to these guidelines by drinking less then they will inevitably turn to higher quality products for every occasion.”

Speaking for CAMRA, Tim Page, Chief Executive said “The best kind of health advice is that based on clear and undisputed evidence. We are uncertain whether there is sufficient agreement among experts to support these new guidelines. We will be consulting with our members and other consumers to find out their views on the guidance and will feedback their opinions to the Chief Medical Officer.”

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