latest health care news

08.01.16

Alcohol units guidance revised in light of strong link with cancer

Chief medical officers have shaken up guidelines for alcohol consumption to lower the risks from cancers and other diseases, reflecting a link between the two that was not as understood when the original guidance came out a decade ago.

It was published on the same day as the Committee on Carcinogenicity’s latest findings, which concluded that the risk of cancer increases with the more alcohol a person drinks, even if that is just a small amount. It can take several years before the risks of getting alcohol-related diseases fall substantially after people stop drinking.

Alcohol guidelines for men have been brought down to the same level as for women – 14 units of alcohol each week, or six pints of beer – which could lower the risk of illnesses such as liver disease and cancer.

Dr John Holmes, senior research fellow from the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, said this will “reflect that there are only very minor differences in alcohol-related health risk between the sexes at this level of consumption”.

But the government is warning against ‘saving up’ these 14 units for one or two days in the week, instead advising to spread them over three or more days with alcohol-free days in between. Those who have one or two binge-drinking sessions each week will still increase the risk of death from long-term illnesses, accidents and injuries.

Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, commented: “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.”

Pregnant women have also been told to avoid drinking entirely, after research concluded there is no safe alcohol limit for them, as opposed to allowing for one or two units per week.

“I want pregnant women to be very clear that they should avoid alcohol as a precaution,” Dame Sally.

“Although the risk of harm to the baby is low if they have drunk small amounts of alcohol before becoming aware of the pregnancy, there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol to drink when you are pregnant.”

For the first time, guidelines include advice on single episodes of drinking to keep short-term health risks to a minimum, including drinking more slowly and with food while alternating with water.

Despite the fact that short-term health risks have wide variations, the Department of Health is consulting on whether there should be a guideline for the maximum number of units that can be drunk in one go or day.

Work to refresh the guidelines has been underway since 2013, fed by a detailed review of the scientific evidence used for the former 1995 guidance. It was led by a panel of experts in public health, alcohol studies and behavioural science.

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