BeerThe UK’s Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) have released new alcohol guidelines [], warning that any level of alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer.

The announcement, supported by a review from the Committee on Carcinogenicity (CoC), aims to reduce the risk of mortality from cancers, and builds on the original guidelines, which were published in 1995 when the links between cancer and alcohol consumption weren’t fully understood.

The review found that the benefits of alcohol for heart health only apply for women aged 55 and over. The greatest benefit is seen when these women limit their intake to around 5 units a week, the equivalent of around 2 standard glasses of wine. The group concluded that there is no justification for drinking for health reasons.

Under the guidelines, the CMOs declared that:

  • Men should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol each week, the same level as for women. This equals 6 pints of average strength beer a week, which would mean a low risk of illnesses such as liver disease or cancer. The previous guidelines were 21 units for men and 14 units for women per week
  • Units should not be ‘saved up’ for 1 or 2 days drinking, but they could be spread over 3 or more days. People who have 1 or 2 heavy drinking sessions each week increase the risk of death from long-term illnesses, accidents and injuries 
  • Alcohol intake should be reduced by having several alcohol-free days a week 
  • Alcohol remains unsafe for pregnant women. The previous advice for pregnant women to limit themselves to no more than 1 to 2 units of alcohol once or twice per week has been removed to provide greater clarity as a precaution. 
 Additionally, advice on single episodes of drinking is included in the guidelines for the first time. To keep the short-term health risks low, the guidelines urge people to: 

  • Limit the total amount of alcohol drunk on any one occasion
  • Drink more slowly, with food and alternate with water.
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. 

“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.”

This new advice follows a detailed review of the scientific evidence used for the guidelines in 1995. This work has been underway since 2013, led by a panel of experts in public health, behavioural science and alcohol studies. 

The development of the new guidelines was chaired by Professor Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and by Professor Sally Macintyre, Professor Emeritus at the University of Glasgow.

Professor Petticrew, said: “This new guidance has been based on a wide range of new evidence from this country and overseas. We have reviewed all the evidence thoroughly and our guidance is firmly based on the science, but we also considered what is likely to be acceptable as a low risk level of drinking and the need to have a clear message.”