NHS to slash safe drinking limits after new evidence reveals how alcohol is linked to certain cancers

And a lovely Daily Wail headline!

NHS to slash safe drinking limits after new evidence reveals how alcohol is linked to certain cancers including breast and bowel

mail country unit guidelines

The NHS is set to slash its safe drinking limits following new evidence that alcohol causes cancer.

Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies is to overhaul the guidelines on the maximum daily and weekly amounts of alcohol that should be consumed by men and women later this year.

The current recommendations – which are almost 30 years out-of-date – tell men to have no more than three to four units a day, the equivalent of a pint of strong lager.

Women are told to drink no more than two to three units, which is equivalent to one large glass of wine. The NHS’s weekly limits state that in total, men should not exceed 21 units and women 14.

But these were drawn up in 1987 and since then there has been an increasing body of research linking relatively small amounts of alcohol to several types of cancer.

It appears to have a particularly strong relationship to breast cancer and some studies have shown that just one glass of wine a week raises the risk by 15 per cent.

Researchers say as many as 1 in 5 cases of breast cancer are caused by alcohol and it has also been linked to cancers of the mouth, throat, liver and bowel.

Doctors believe the existing safe limits are too high, and even the experts responsible for drawing them up 28 years ago admit they were ‘plucked out of the air.’

Dr Kieran Moriarty, a consultant gastroenterologist and spokesman on alcohol for the British Society for Gastroenterology, which involves illnesses of the stomach and intestines, said the evidence that had emerged in the last two decades had been a ‘game changer.’

‘The big difference that has been recognised since 1995 is the association between alcohol and cancer.

‘One unit a day or less than one unit a day is associated with an increased risk and the cancer that is seen as the most sensitive is breast cancer.

‘Alcohol is associated with cancers elsewhere and there is generally no safe level.

‘That is the new game changer in this and that will need to be incorporated into new assessments. I’m pretty sure the sensible limits will be scaled down, if they are going to go on the evidence. The harm starts off at lower than 21 and 14 units.’

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, spokesman on alcohol for the Royal College of Physicians, said: ‘Alcohol is classified by the World Health Organization as a class 1 carcinogen (cancer-causing agent).

‘You can’t say it is safe.’

Doctors also want the guidelines to tell women not to drink in pregnancy as alcohol can cause babies to suffer behavioural problems brain damage, deformities.

Currently they are unclear and state women can have one or two drinks, once or twice a week.

In the past six years Canada and Australia reduced their safe daily alcohol limits to levels lower than the UK, to take account of the new evidence on health risks.

Canada’s state that men should have no more than 15 units a week and women just ten while in Australia, all adults are told not exceed two units a day.

Experts say the Government will follow suit by lowering guidelines later this year and they may also include recommending several ‘alcohol-free’ days during the week.

The Royal College of Physicians want the public to be told not to drink on at least three days of the week while other researchers say they should have a minimum of two.

Professor Rajiv Jalan, who specialises in liver diseases at University College London, said damage could be caused to the body in men drinking just three units of alcohol a day, well within the government limits.

He carried out an experiment in which twin brothers drank 21 units of alcohol a week for a month, screened last month on BBC Two’s Horizon series.

One was binge drinking and the other stuck to the government limit of three units a day, but signs of inflammation in the body – linked to cancer – were found even in the twin who was drinking within the daily limits.

He said: ‘We think 21 units (a week) is probably not safe for men. What we found is that it creates an inflammatory response.

‘The person who was binge drinking was terrible but the person who was not bingeing, who was drinking three units a day, was also compromised at the end of the month. It (the safe limit) is almost certainly less than it is stated at the moment.’

One unit a day or less than one unit a day is associated with an increased risk and the cancer that is seen as the most sensitive is breast cancer
Dr Kieran Moriarty, consultant gastroenterologist

Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, which aims to promote the health risks of drinking, said: ‘Since the British guidelines were established, more data has become available about the health risks associated with regular drinking, including the relationship between alcohol and cancer.

‘The World Health Organization advises there is no safe level of drinking for cancer prevention, so we would expect our updated guidelines to include this information so that consumers are able to make informed decisions about their drinking.’

Only last week Alcohol Concern – one of the key alcohol charities – launched an awareness campaign alerting the public to risk posed by alcohol on cancer.

Jackie Ballard, its chief executive, said no amount of alcohol was ‘safe’. She added: ‘Alcohol has cancer causing properties and it’s important that people are aware of the risks associated with its use. ‘

And in 2007 Dr Richard Smith, a member of the Royal College of Physicians panel which drew up the guidelines in 1987 said: ‘Those limits were really plucked out of the air. They were not based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee.’

A Department of Health spokesman confirmed the guidelines were being ‘reviewed’ and would be published later this year.

15 units a week for men and 10 for women, with no more than 2 units a day total.  How many others will now fall into the category where their drinking is considered unsafe with these potentially lower guidelines?  Or will they just be derided and ignored as they pretty much are now?

2 thoughts on “NHS to slash safe drinking limits after new evidence reveals how alcohol is linked to certain cancers

  1. *essay alert* 🙂

    first thought on seeing this was how misleading (deliberately?) that image of the woman with the wineglass is. because that is clearly not a 175ml measure!!! 250 ml at least… but having the red sticker image of ‘175 ml red wine’ implies that it is at a casual glance, thus perpetuating the safe myth of ‘a glass of wine’ whatever the size.

    second thought is that this highlights a classic problem with our society’s doublethink around alcohol – the ability to simultaneously hold two contradictory beliefs. we think

    (1) alcohol cannot truly be bad for us, or our Government would protect us by banning it

    (2) when our Medical Officer recommends levels, we disbelieve them as impractical.

    so we are off the hook. not our fault.

    thirdly one other aspect the CMO is apparently considering according to another article* is whether there should be a ‘binge drinking’ limit, as for example in Australia, where both women and men are recommended** as follows:

    ‘For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces your risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury over a lifetime.

    Drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion.’

    what do you think of this suggestion? maybe coupled with a two or three alcohol free days a week clause?

    * http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/11783564/Alcohol-advice-should-give-us-binge-drink-limits.html#disqus_thread

    ** http://www.alcohol.gov.au/internet/alcohol/publishing.nsf/Content/guide-adult

    1. Your eye for detail is exceptional Prim – hadn’t even noticed that about the wine glass in the image! Cognitive dissonance abounds around alcohol so I think whatever the CMO says it will be ignored by those who drink over that amount as it doesn’t fit their world view. You can be sure the drinks industry are lobbying hard to make sure that whatever the new guidelines are (and they were due over 18 months ago so they’ve already done a great job of stalling them!) they are ambiguous enough to not damage their sales (which the new considered guidelines are) ….

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