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Call for mandatory health warnings on alcohol products

Published 25/08/2016

The guidance suggests drinkers should have several booze-free days a week to reduce their intake
The guidance suggests drinkers should have several booze-free days a week to reduce their intake

Campaigners have called for mandatory warnings about the dangers of alcohol to be published on wine bottles and beer cans as official guidance was published warning that no level of regular drinking could be considered "completely safe".

The new guidance published by the UK's chief medical officers cuts the maximum recommended number of units men can consume in a week from 21 down to 14 - just over five pints of 4.8% lager or four large glasses of 14% wine - bringing them in line with women.

The guidance suggests drinkers should have several booze-free days a week to reduce their intake and recommends that the "safest approach" for pregnant women is not to drink alcohol at all.

The guidelines, first proposed in January, were welcomed by health campaigners but the Government was urged to go further and introduce mandatory labelling for alcohol - similar to the warnings applied to tobacco.

Joanna Simons, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said: "These evidence-based guidelines were put together based on recommendations from a group of independent doctors, after looking at 20 years' worth of evidence. They represent the maximum amount we can drink each week with little risk to our health.

"Alcohol is linked to over 60 medical conditions including cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure, and regularly drinking over the recommended limits can increase the risk of developing alcohol-related illnesses.

"We know that nine out of 10 people don't know about the link between drinking and cancer and so we are calling for mandatory health warnings on alcohol products, as is standard practice in other countries."

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance, was part of the expert group advising the chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the new guidelines.

He said: " The latest evidence demonstrates that the risk associated with cancer increases with any amount of alcohol consumed, so there is no level of drinking which can be considered safe."

He added: "T o ensure the public has faith in these new guidelines, it is essential that the harms associated with alcohol are communicated clearly to healthcare professionals and consumers.

"This should be done via mandatory labelling of alcoholic products, and mass media campaigns developed by Public Health England."

The new guidance sweeps away 1995 recommendations and takes account of new evidence on the increased risk of developing cancer, as well as the harms from binge drinking.

The expert group warned that certain cancers could occur even when drinking was kept within the weekly guidelines.

"Whilst they judge the risks to be low, this means there is no level of regular drinking that can be considered as completely safe in relation to some cancers," the document said.

"People can reduce these risks by drinking less than the guidelines or by not drinking at all."

The guidelines suggest that people who regularly have as much as 14 units a week should spread out their drinking, rather than binging.

"If you have one or two heavy drinking episodes a week, you increase your risks of death from long-term illness and from accidents and injuries," the guidance states.

The guidance does not include a maximum recommended cap for a single session, but recommends limiting the amount consumed on a night out.

It also suggests people should drink more slowly, eat some food with their drinks and alternate between alcohol and glasses of water.

The guidance also says that any benefits of drinking small amounts of alcohol are "less than previously thought" and are only significant for women aged over 55.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "The alcohol guidelines give people the latest and most up to date scientific information so that they can make an informed decision about their drinking.

"The aim of the guidelines is to help people understand the risks alcohol may pose to their health, not to prevent those who want to drink alcohol from doing so.

"This was the most comprehensive look at all the evidence on alcohol in 20 years."

Caroline Moye, head of the World Cancer Research Fund, said: " It is vital that people fully understand the risks attached to drinking alcohol and clear health warnings could be a simple way to get that message out to the public.

"Too many people are not aware that drinking alcohol increases the risk of several types of cancer. Our own evidence shows that about 24,000 cancer cases could be prevented every year in the UK if no one drank."

Elaine Hindal, chief executive of alcohol education charity Drinkaware, said: "Not everyone chooses to drink alcohol, but for those who do it's important they understand how they can keep their risk to a minimum.

"We hope that the clearer language will help people make better choices about their drinking and give them practical advice to reduce the short and long-term health risks of alcohol.

"Our own research suggests that aside from the well-known impacts on the liver, broader alcohol-related health risks such as heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer are not commonly understood by many people.

"Lowering the limit for men and women to 14 units per week or around six pints of average strength beer, may help to simplify the message that excessive drinking carries an increased risk of health harms."

Henry Ashworth, chief executive of the drinks industry body Portman Group said: "Although the CMOs have provided much needed clarity that responsible drinking carries a level of risk no greater than other day-to-day activities, it is regrettable that the guidelines still include a reference to the Guidelines Development Group's view that there is no safe level of drinking.

"This message has been consistently advocated by Guidelines Development Group members with widely-reported temperance interests and ignores international and domestic evidence.

"Placed alongside low risk guidelines it will render the CMOs' advice confusing and contradictory for consumers."

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