Men and women who drink regularly should consume no more than 14 units a week – equivalent to six pints of moderate strength beer, or seven small glasses of wine – according to advice issued by chief medical officers.
Previously, the limit for men was 21 units. For women the limit is unchanged.
However, academics and industry stakeholders questioned the science underpinning the guidelines. Many questioned the level of risk associated with alcohol consumption (see box).
The medical officers warned any level of alcohol consumption raises the risk of cancer, a view supported by a new review from the Committee on Carcinogenicity (CoC) on alcohol and cancer risk.
Under the latest advice, the links between alcohol and cancer were not fully understood in the original guidelines, which were issued in 1995.
The CoC review also found that the benefits of alcohol for heart health applied only for women aged 55 and over. The greatest benefit is seen when these women limit their intake to around five units a week, the equivalent of around two standard glasses of wine.
It concluded that there was no justification for drinking for health reasons.
An additional recommendation is not to ‘save up’ the 14 units for one or two days, but to spread them over three or more days. People who have one or two heavy drinking sessions each week increase the risk of death from long-term illnesses, accidents and injuries.
The guidelines have also been updated to clarify that no level of alcohol is safe to drink in pregnancy. Previously, the advice was for pregnant women to limit themselves to no more than one to two units of alcohol once or twice a week.
Dame 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.”
“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.”
A public consultation will be held on the updated guidelines until April 2016.
Tim Page, chief executive, Campaign for Real Ale: “The best kind of health advice is based on clear and undisputed evidence. We are uncertain whether there is sufficient agreement among experts to support these new guidelines.”
Dr James Nicholls, director of research and policy development, Alcohol Research UK: “The new guidelines on low-risk drinking are strongly informed by recent research showing an association between alcohol consumption and a number of cancers.”
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor of the public understanding of risk, University of Cambridge: “These guidelines define ‘low-risk’ drinking as giving you less than a 1% chance of dying from an alcohol-related condition. So should we feel ok about risks of this level? An hour of TV watching a day, or a bacon sandwich a couple of times a week, is more dangerous to your long-term health.”
Professor Peter Anderson, professor of substance use, policy and practice, Newcastle University: “A weekly guideline does not make sense. It is very difficult to monitor how much you drink on a weekly basis – it is much easier on a daily or occasion basis. It is a pity, also, that they did not move away from the very confusing unit concept to grams of alcohol.”
Dr John Holmes, senior research fellow, Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield: “The guidelines are consistent with our evidence and reflect the definitions of ‘low-risk drinking’. These definitions took account of potential health benefits from moderate drinking.”
Dr Niamh Fitzgerald, lecturer in alcohol studies, University of Stirling (part of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies): “This is not a crackdown on alcohol, it is about supporting people to make up their own minds. The new guidance represents a strong scientific and health professional consensus on the risks from drinking alcohol.”