New guidelines for alcohol consumption in the UK

The Department of Health has published new advice for alcohol consumption and warned that drinking any level of alcohol raises the risk of a range of cancers.

Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, has played a key role in shaping the new recommendations by chairing the independent Guidelines Development Group.

Prof Petticrew was one of a panel of experts who conducted a review of the scientific evidence since the previous guidelines were issued in 1995. David Leon, Professor of Epidemiology at the School, was also a member of the group.

To keep any health risks low, the new advice stipulates men should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol each week, the same level as for women. This compares with the weekly equivalent for the previous daily guidelines of 21 units for men and 14 units for women. Regularly drinking six pints of average strength beer a week would mean reaching the total of 14 units and remaining at low risk of illnesses like liver disease or cancer.

Prof 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. I would like to thank all my colleagues involved in developing these guidelines and I hope people will be able to use it to make informed decisions about how much they drink."

The guidelines for pregnant women have also been updated in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to be clear that no level of alcohol is safe to drink in pregnancy. The previous guidelines already advised pregnant women to avoid alcohol. However, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland they added that, if women did choose to drink, they should limit themselves to no more than one to two units of alcohol once or twice per week and should not get drunk. The new guidelines remove this caveat altogether to provide greater clarity as a precaution.

Chief Medical Officer for England Dame Sally Davies 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."

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