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Other countries 'quicker to respond' to new research on impact of alcohol

Published 08/01/2016

The revised guidelines were influenced by changes in Canada and Australia over past years, experts said
The revised guidelines were influenced by changes in Canada and Australia over past years, experts said

Britain is "late to the party" on revising recommended drinking guidelines in line with research that has already prompted change in other countries, experts say.

A landmark report by Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies takes account of new evidence on the increased risk of developing cancer from drinking as well as the harms from binge-drinking.

The previous guidelines, set in 1995, advised men do not drink more than three to four units per day - up to 21 units or less per week - while women should drink no more than two to three units a day, or 14 units per week. Under the new advice, men should also not exceed 14 units each week.

The revision was mostly influenced by what has happened in Canada and Australia over past years, according to Dr James Nicholls, director of research at Alcohol Research UK.

He said: "What happened in some other countries was they were quicker to respond to new research about alcohol and cancer, mainly.

"When it comes to things like heart disease and some other conditions, there's a question about a protection factor in lower levels of consumption.

"But when it comes to cancer, that doesn't really exist - there's just a straight-line relationship between how much you drink and how your risk increases.

"That's what, I think, has primarily motivated the revision of some of the guidelines."

He added: "It's also implemented a revision of the guidelines in some other countries as well."

While units of measurement vary slightly from one country to the next, official standard "drinks" or "units" generally contain between eight and 14 grams of pure ethanol, according to t he independent organisation Alcohol in Moderation.

Almost a dozen countries had lower recommended limits for both men and women when it came to "minimum risk" drinking guidelines: Australia, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden and the United States.

The UK was now more in-step with these guidelines.

In Spain, men can have up to 28 drinks per week, while women can have 17, and still remain within the guidelines. Men in Austria are allowed up to 21 standard drinks each week, and women are permitted 14 - the same advice issued in Norway, according to Alcohol in Moderation material.

Americans who aim to adhere to "moderate alcohol consumption" should not have more than one drink (14g of alcohol) per day for women, or more than two drinks per day for men, authorities said.

In Australia, men and women are advised to drink no more than two "standard drinks" (10g of alcohol) on any day. Authorities also warn no more than four drinks should be consumed on any single occasion.

Canadian women are advised not to have more than two drinks each day or 10 a week. The guidelines allow men to have three drinks each day or 15 a week.

Authorities there warn even for "special occasions" men should drink no more than four beverages, and women no more than three.

In Denmark, the advice allowed for 14 drinks per week for men, seven for women; in Italy, two to three drinks for men, and one to two for women; while in South Africa, men were allowed three drinks a day, and women two.

A statement from the Portman Group, which represents the 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."

Dr Nicholls said the question about red wine's potential health benefits was still unresolved in terms of international evidence, and existing research could easily be misunderstood.

He said: "There is not a clear consensus in terms of what's going on with heart disease, but it sounds like what the Chief Health Officer has done is erred on the side of caution, and taken a conservative view of the research."

The official alcohol guidelines in several countries are much more lenient than the new UK rules.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "We are the first country in Europe to do a full review of the evidence on alcohol in at least 10 years."

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