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Education call as health bosses slash guidelines on alcohol intake

By Victoria O'Hara

A major awareness campaign is needed in Northern Ireland to help re-educate people of the dangers of alcohol, an addiction expert has said.

The strong comments come from Addiction NI after Northern Ireland's chief medical officer revised the recommended alcohol intake guidelines.

The first full set of strict new regulations since 1995 says there is "no such thing as a safe level of drinking".

It adds that both men and women should not consume more than 14 units a week. This is around six pints of beer, and those should be spread over three days. It warns people should not "save up" their units and drink them all in one go.

However, there have been concerns that the latest advice adds confusion over exactly how much 14 units of alcohol is.

Science shows that even when drinking is cut, there is still some risk of developing alcohol-related illnesses, including cancer.

Pregnant women are also now being advised not to drink at all. Previous advice, while suggesting that they should not drink, said that if they did, it should be no more than one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week, and they should not get drunk.

Alcohol abuse here costs the taxpayer £900m annually and the cost of alcohol-related harm equates to about one tenth of Northern Ireland's block grant from Westminster.

According to Addiction NI there are:

• 170,000 people in the province classed as hazardous drinkers;

• 47,000 harmful drinkers;

• 40,000 children who live in homes where alcohol is abused.

Dr Michael McBride, Northern Ireland's chief medical officer, said: "Many people drink alcohol, and most do so in ways that do not significantly put them at risk of alcohol-related harm. But new evidence has emerged on the potential risks and benefits from alcohol consumption.

"Individuals will make their own judgments as to risks they are willing to accept from alcohol, whether to drink alcohol, and how much and how often to drink. These guidelines should help people to make informed choices."

Dr George O'Neill, chairman of Addiction NI, added that the issue of units was confusing for the public. He suggested that the government needed to invest more in alcohol awareness across Northern Ireland.

"There is an absolute message out there that if you are pregnant do not take alcohol - that's a big positive," he said.

"Where the confusion lies is over units - most people don't understand units and that is a difficulty. Saying 14 units doesn't mean anything to anybody. People can't relate to it."

Dr O'Neill, a GP with more than 40 years' medical experience, added: "The strategy the Department of Health has to tackle alcohol addiction and awareness is £8m to deal with a £900m problem, so maybe it's time to look at investment."

There are an estimated 270 deaths directly related to alcohol abuse every year in Northern Ireland.

"What we should be doing is asking people, 'Does your alcohol interfere with your professional, private and personal life'?" Dr O'Neill said. "If that triggers something, you really should seek help by talking to someone.

Dr O'Neill added that education was key in changing social attitudes to alcohol in both young and old.

"There has been a significant increase in solitary drinking over the last five years," he explained. "This appears to be older people suffering a bereavement or coping with loneliness. This is a societal problem and there needs to be a major awareness and education campaign."

If you or a member of your family needs support, contact Addiction NI 028 90664434 or FASA on 028 90803040.

We speak to eight local personalities to see if they'll heed the advice

Pamela Ballantine (57) is a presenter and journalist who lives in Belfast. She said: "I like to have a glass of wine with my meal in the evening a few nights a week, and then at the weekend it's no holds barred really. I don't really follow guidelines, but I know my own body and my own health and it just depends how I feel."

Gloria Hunniford (75) presents Rip Off Britain on BBC1 and currently lives in Kent. She said: "I've actually given up alcohol for the past three months. I have never been a big drinker, but I just decided to give it up recently. I don't particularly enjoy it and those around me appreciate a designated driver. Those guidelines won't change how I drink, but I think they are a good thing."

Paul Clark (62) is a UTV presenter who lives in Belfast. He said: "I don't drink much each week. I work nights and that limits it, and I've just never been a big drinker anyway, but I always thought that there was a safe level. Now we're being told that there is no safe level and that might make me think a little."

Peter Corry (50) is a singer and producer. He divides his time between London and Holywood. He said: "I don't drink much but there are times when I would say, 'Gosh let's only have a glass of wine two nights a week' because it's so easy to start having a glass every night. Sometimes it's good to have a bit of a rest but not because of any guidelines."

Charlie Lawson (57) is an actor, ex-Coronation Street star and greengrocer who's originally from Enniskillen. He said: "I'm certainly not going to change my habits. I don't understand the point of drinking just one unit, why would you do that? I drink the minimum of one bottle of wine every night and have done for years. I enjoy fine food and I'm fit and healthy. Medically, I suppose I should be dead, but I find this stuff very much like a nanny state. It certainly won't change drinkers in Northern Ireland or Scotland."

Leesa Harker (38) is a writer/producer and creator of Maggie Muff who lives in Belfast. She said: "I won't be changing my drinking habits. I don't drink in the house, but when I go out, which is not very often, I drink until I fall down. I'm sick of all of this health advice. As someone who got breast cancer, I get extremely offended when people share these things on Facebook. Everything in moderation is the way to go and to forget about all these recommendations that are coming out constantly."

Gemma Garrett (34) is a model and actress from Belfast. She said: "This is like a double-edged sword for me as I'm currently on a dry January. But I've made two New Year's resolutions this year, and they're not to binge drink any more or to take any more shots as I'm too old for two-day hangovers. So, yes, I'm more aware of what I drink. It's good advice for younger drinkers, but I can't remember being aware of guidelines when I was younger."

Paddy Barnes (28) is an Olympic bronze and Commonwealth gold medallist. The boxer lives in Belfast. He said: "I don't really drink that often because I'm mostly training, but I do drink in my downtime. Then I would drink more than the recommended limit on a night with friends. I won't be changing my drinking habits for something I already knew. People drink to enjoy themselves, and that's OK with me. Too much of anything is not good for you."

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