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The UK Chief Medical Officers published new alcohol consumption guidelines in January 2016. Prior to this publication, two expert groups had reviewed the evidence on the effects of alcohol consumption on health, and looked at the best way to provide this health information to the public.  The guidelines have been subject to a consultation[1] which closed in April 2016, having received 1017 responses.[2]  The outcome to the consultation has not been published yet. 

The guidelines include a number of changes since the original recommendations in 1995. The NHS Choices website provides an overview of the new guidelines:

Regular drinking

 The guidance advises that:

  • to keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level you are safest not regularly drinking more than 14 units per week – 14 units is equivalent to a bottle and a half of wine or five pints of export-type lager (5% abv) over the course of a week – this applies to both men and women
  • if you do drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread this evenly over three days or more
  • if you have one or two heavy drinking sessions, you increase your risks of death from long-term illnesses and from accidents and injuries
  • the risk of developing a range of illnesses (including, for example, cancers of the mouth, throat and breast) increases with any amount you drink on a regular basis
  • if you wish to cut down the amount you’re drinking, a good way to achieve this is to have several alcohol-free days each week

Single drinking sessions

The new proposed guidelines also look at the potential risks of single drinking sessions, which can include accidents resulting in injury (causing death in some cases), misjudging risky situations, and losing self-control.

You can reduce these risks by:

  • limiting the total amount of alcohol you drink on any occasion
  • drinking more slowly, drinking with food, and alternating alcoholic drinks with water
  • avoiding risky places and activities, making sure you have people you know around, and ensuring you can get home safely

Some groups of people are more likely to be affected by alcohol and should be more careful of their level of drinking. These include:

  • young adults
  • older people
  • those with low body weight
  • those with other health problems
  • those on medicines or other drugs

Drinking and pregnancy

The guidelines recommend that:

  • if you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to your baby to a minimum
  • drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby, with the more you drink the greater the risk[3]

At the time of the publication of the guidelines, the Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies said that they aim to give the public the latest and most up to date scientific information so that they can make informed decisions about drinking:

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.

I want pregnant women to be very clear that they should avoid alcohol as a precaution. 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.

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.[4]

The guidelines have been welcomed by a number of health organisations such as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence[5], Cancer Research UK[6] and the Royal College of General Practitioners[7].  However, concerns have been expressed by representatives from the alcohol and hospitality industry.[8]

The Royal Statistical Society (RSS), in its submission to the Department of Health consultation on the guidelines, recommended that they “should be less prescriptive and ‘genuinely reflect the principle of informed choice.”[9]  The Chief Medical Officer has addressed the concerns raised, in a letter to the President-Elect of the RSS, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter.[10] She said that overall tone of the guidance was not prescriptive, that they are guidelines and are about giving information.  She also said it was important to get the balance right in communicating complex scientific information.

This debate pack includes press and parliamentary material and links to further reading on this subject.

More information on the production of the guidelines and final proposed recommendations can be found in the following reports:

[1]     Department of Health, Health risks from alcohol: new guidelines, January 2016

[2]     HC Written Question 37857, Alcoholic Drinks: Consumption, 1 June 2016

[3]     NHS Choices, New alcohol advice issued, 8 January 2016

[4]     Department of Health, News story: New alcohol guidelines show increased risk of cancer, 8 January 2016

[5]     NICE, New recommended drinking guidelines welcomed by NICE, 8 January 2016

[6]     CRUK, New alcohol guidelines to help cut cancer risk, 8 January 2016

[7]     RCGP, RCGP response to new alcohol guidelines, 8 January 2016

[8]     The Drinks Business, UK alcohol guidance ‘out of line’ with Europe, 8 January 2016

[9]     Statslife, RSS responds to alcohol consumption guidelines consultation, 31 March 2016

[10]    Department of Health blog, Chief Medical Officer’s letter on alcohol guidelines evidence, 22 january 2016


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