Health Update: New Guidelines on Drinking Alcohol


Below is a summary of the key points from an article in The Guardian this week on the new recommendations on drinking alcohol in England, which are now the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world.

‘For the first time since 1995, government recommendations on alcohol drinking have been updated.  The new guidelines advise consuming less per session, on fewer days per week, and less overall.  For men, the guidelines now bring the recommended limit per week in line for men and women at 14 units.

Scientific understanding of the effects of alcohol has advanced a great deal in the 20 years since the previous guidelines, the most up-to-date evidence suggesting that they both underestimated the harms and overestimated the benefits of drinking alcohol. In particular, the evidence that alcohol increases the risk of some cancers has grown stronger, while previous suggestions that small amounts of alcohol could be protective for the heart now seem less likely to be the case. The new guidelines point out that there’s no ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption, but that we encounter risks every day, and alcohol is just another of these.

Since 1995, a large amount of evidence has emerged suggesting that alcohol use causes various cancers. As a specific example, the risk of bowel cancer in men who do not drink is around 64 cases per 1000 men. This rate doesn’t increase for men who drink within the new recommended range (up to 14 units per week), but for those who drink more than 35 units a week it increases to around 115 cases per 1000 men. Alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer in women at even lower levels of drinking. The risk in non-drinkers is around 109 cases per 1000 women. Even drinking within the new recommended limit increases the risk slightly (to around 126 women per 1000), but drinking more than 35 units nearly doubles the risk to 206 cases per 1000 women.

Vivian Maier

A figure of 14 units per week was settled upon by the scientists who helped develop these guidelines because this represents just under a 1% lifetime risk of death due to alcohol use (from any cause, not just due to cancer). How does this compare to other risks we expose ourselves to? It’s about equivalent to your lifetime risk of getting bowel cancer if you eat three rashers of bacon every day. It’s much lower than your risk of death if you’re a smoker, which current estimates put at greater than 1 in 2. Conversely, your lifetime risk of being killed in a car accident is 1 in around 230; less than half as likely as your risk of an alcohol related death if you drink within the new guidelines.

Are there any health benefits to drinking alcohol? The new guidelines do not rule out that women over 55 who drink a small amount could see benefits to their health.  This benefit is greatest for very low rates of alcohol consumption (around 1 unit per day, well under the 14 unit-per-week limit), and it certainly doesn’t negate the increased risk for cancers and liver disease that alcohol might cause.

So it seems our bodies would prefer us not to drink alcohol.  Cheers, bodies!

To close, here’s a classic drinking song from John Lee Hooker, One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer…





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