Statement on new CMO guidelines on low risk drinking

Alcohol Research UK welcomes the new guidelines by the UK Chief Medical Officers and calls for a public debate to increase understanding on the levels of risk associated with alcohol consumption.

Alcohol Research UK welcomes the new CMO guidelines on low-risk drinking, which are strongly informed by recent research on the health effects of alcohol consumption at all levels.

The evidence of the association between alcohol and cancer has become stronger in recent years and shows that some cancer risks start to increase with any amount of alcohol consumption – though those risks are usually low to start with.  Acknowledging these associations is important and to be welcomed.  However, further information is needed and we hope that the publication of these guidelines will encourage an informed debate on this issue.

The guidelines take a conservative view of the possible protective effects of moderate alcohol consumption on heart disease and stroke.

The CMO report broadly rejects the claim that alcohol has a protective effect on the heart.  This question is still unresolved in the research and there is not much detail on how the claim that moderate drinking only reduces risk of heart disease among women over 55 was arrived at.  However, the guidelines do reflect the fact that any protective effect is likely to be cancelled out by any heavy drinking – even on a single occasion – and that the possible protective effects among older drinkers need to be balanced against the new evidence on cancer risks, which are spread more widely across the population.

On pregnancy, the CMO has adopted an explicitly precautionary approach.  The report acknowledges that there is little evidence showing significant risks from low levels of consumption during pregnancy.  However, it advises against drinking on the basis that a zero-risk message is easier to communicate and avoids creating grey areas.  While it is vital that women do not drink at risky levels while pregnant, it is also important that women who have drunk small amounts during pregnancy – perhaps unknowingly – do not now worry excessively.

14 units a week may seem low, but it is based on robust analysis.  Of course, 14 units a week is not a magical break point: rather, it is the point at which the CMO estimates that the overall risk of dying from an alcohol-related cause comes close to 1 in 100.  The level will present a challenge, as we know that the existing guidelines are either ignored or seen as not credible by many drinkers.  It will be important to communicate this message in ways that are workable and effective.

Overall, the guidance provides an important reminder that all alcohol consumption comes with some degree of risk, as do many other activities, and that drinking within these levels will reduce many of those risks to a very low level. The decision on what level of risk is acceptable is, however, for individuals to make: these guidelines provide a benchmark, but an informed and considered public debate on how we think about risk in relation to drinking would be very welcome in the months ahead.

What exactly does this all mean? Find out more in this brief guide: ‘The new alcohol guidelines explained‘.