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08/01/16 00:01

New alcohol guidelines

Chief medical officers update advice for lower-risk drinking.

Men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week to reduce the risk of diseases such as cancer and liver disease, under new guidelines issued by the United Kingdom Chief Medical Officers (CMOs).

Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, joined her counterparts across the UK to set out the new guidance following an expert review of the scientific evidence on the short and long term impact on health from alcohol since the previous guidelines in 1995.

The CMOs have accepted the report of the expert group and have issued three new guidelines:

  • A weekly guideline on regular drinking;
  • Advice on single episodes of drinking;
  • A guideline on pregnancy and drinking.

The CMOs advise that to reduce risk to a low level, both men and women do not regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week. Previous guidelines recommended different amounts for men and women based on daily amounts that did not reflect drinking patterns.

The CMOs also recommend that if people do drink 14 units per week, this should be spread evenly over three days or more. They also recommend several alcohol-free days per week as a way of cutting down, if people wish to do this.

The new guidelines bring the rest of the UK in line with Scotland on advice for pregnant women. Previously, Scotland was the only country in the UK to advise women that there is no ‘safe’ amount of alcohol that can be drunk during pregnancy so the best approach is not to drink at all. That advice is now reflected UK-wide.

The review found that there are adverse effects from drinking alcohol on a range of cancers, which were not fully understood in 1995. The risks start from any level of regular drinking and rise with the amount being drunk.

This coincides with the publication of the latest findings from the Committee on Carcinogenicity (CoC), which found that drinking even a small amount of alcohol increases the risk of some cancers compared with people who do not drink at all.

Dr Calderwood said:

“I’m pleased to join with the other CMOs to give this updated advice on how to keep the risks from drinking alcohol at a low level.

“Our understanding of the adverse effects alcohol can have on health has developed significantly in recent years. 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.

“I’m also pleased that the other UK nations have followed Scotland’s precautionary approach in advising women that it is safest not to drink at all during pregnancy, meaning we have harmonised advice to mums-to-be across the UK. 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 pregnant.”

Notes to editors

Work on the review has been underway since 2013, led by a panel of experts in public health and behavioural science.

The group developing the new guidelines has been 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.

The new guidelines for drinking will take effect immediately, although the wording of the guidelines will be issued for consultation, with an opportunity to respond until 1 April 2016:

The consultation also seeks views on whether the guideline for single occasion drinking should include a specific number of units.