DRINKING just one glass of wine or beer can put you at risk of illnesses such as cancer and liver disease, according to a major shake-up of advice on safe alcohol consumption by the UK’s chief medical officers (CMOs).
New advice published today says that men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, sending a clear message that the dangers of drinking are far greater than was known when the original guidelines were published in 1995.
The previous guidelines advised men not to drink more than three to four units per day – up to 21 units per week – while women should drink no more than two to three units a day, or 14 units per week.
Drinkers should not “save up” units and consumption should be spread evenly over three days or more, the guidance said, as people who have one or two heavy drinking sessions each week increase their risk of death from long-term illnesses and accidents and injuries.
The guidance also brings the rest of the UK in line with Scotland by recommending that mothers-to-be should not drink any alcohol during pregnancy.
Experts behind the new rules rejected previous evidence that red wine could be good for the heart as the benefits were only seen in women over the age of 55 who drink the equivalent of two glasses of wine per week
It comes as a separate report from the Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COC) revealed that drinking even a small amount of alcohol increases the risk of some cancers compared with people who do not drink at all.
Alcohol campaigners hailed the new guidance as a major step forward and renewed calls for minimum unit pricing, but some critics said the CMOs were “scaremongering” over minimal risks.
Understanding of the adverse affects of alcohol has increased significantly in recent years, said Dr Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s chief medical officer, who collaborated on the guidelines with UK CMO Dame Sally Davies.
She said: “Every drink adds up and over time can lead to serious health problems such as breast cancer, high blood pressure, stroke and chronic liver disease. If men and women limit their intake to no more than 14 units a week it keeps the risk of developing these conditions low.”
Dr Calderwood, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, also welcomed the changes to advice for mothers-to-be as she said there is “no safe level of alcohol” when pregnant.
Health experts and campaigners have welcomed the new guidance.
Professor Naveed Sattar, Professor of Metabolic Medicine at Glasgow University, said: “For years, many have been seduced into drinking more than they should in the belief that alcohol protects them from heart disease. However, this apparent ‘protection’ is now open to question and with the other evidence demonstrating even small amounts increase other health risks including but not limited to weight gain and cancers, then it’s clear that for many the less alcohol drunk the better.
“Hopefully these new messages will be a wake-up call for many and motivate them to moderate their intakes, with resulting improvement in health.”
The findings seem to support the case for minimum unit pricing, which would set a floor price for units to prevent high strength alcohol being sold cheaply.
Eric Carlin, director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), said: “The case is made yet again for sustained action to reduce alcohol harms across the Scottish population, which causes 20 deaths every week.
“We need implementation of minimum unit pricing, which is still shamefully being blocked by legal challenges by global producers, fronted by the Scotch Whisky Association.”
Cancer charities welcomed the move as a step towards wider awareness of the links between alcohol and cancer, as the COC study found women who drink two units a day regularly have a 16 per cent increased of developing breast cancer and dying from it.
Lawrence Cowan, Breast Cancer Now policy and campaigns manager for Scotland, said: “Some things that affect breast cancer risk you cannot control. However, alcohol is one of the most important factors and one you can do something about.”
However, Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs think-tank, said: “People deserve to get honest and accurate health advice from the chief medical officer, not scaremongering.”