Alcohol Research UK consultation response: Low-risk guidelines for alcohol consumption

The Commons Select Committee for Science and Technology has just completed a consultation on low risk alcohol consumption guidelines. Of course it is often argued that we do not want a nanny state that tells us how much to consume and when to consume it. The approach that I prefer is that scientists have a responsibility to disseminate evidence on these issues and it is then up to the drinker to decide whether to follow the guidelines. Henny Youngman tells us “When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading”. Clearly he would not be interested in guidelines.

If you want to consider their deliberations then Google for Australian and Canadian guidelines. If you want to take a short cut then look at the overview provided by Alcohol Research UK – click here. If you want to short cut the short cut then read this blog.

A comparison of these two reports indicates that different methods of establishing low risk guidelines will lead to differing low risk limits. These upper limits for daily low risk consumption, in UK units, are summarised in the following table (1 unit = 8g):

Low risk limits for disease

Low risk limits for injury

Women

Men

Women

Men

Canada

3.4

5

5

7

Australia

2.5

2.5

2.5

2.5

Recommended low risk upper limits in UK Units

Currently the UK NHS recommends that men should not regularly drink more than 3–4 units a day and women should not regularly drink more than 2–3 units a day.

One question posed by the Select Committee is whether other countries have stricter or more liberal limits.

For women 12 countries are recommending limits that are lower than the UK. They are:

  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Czech Republic
  • Finland
  • France
  • Ireland
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Poland
  • Slovenia
  • Sweden
  • United States

Only 5 countries recommend limits that are greater than the UK. They are:

  • Canada
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Singapore
  • Spain.

For men 15 countries recommend limits that are lower than the UK. They are:

  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Canada
  • Czech Republic
  • Finland
  • France
  • Ireland
  • New Zealand
  • Poland
  • Singapore
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • United States

Six countries recommend higher limits:

  • Denmark
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Netherlands
  • Portugal
  • South Africa

The message to be disseminated must be as simple as is appropriate but it also must be accurate. Nick Heather has pointed out that it must give a guideline on a limit for regular consumption as well as a higher one for one-off consumption and probably a guideline on weekly consumption. He argues that:

“Conventional wisdom has it that, to be effective, communications to the general public should consist of no more than one piece of information or two at the most. However, if the accurate information it is desired to communicate is unavoidably complicated, what alternative is there? At the very least, there should be a discussion in public health circles about how the conflicting imperatives of avoiding overly complex messages and telling the public what the available evidence indicates can be reconciled”.

Some members of the public find it easy to interpret guidelines as the ravings of the health police. They should remember that excessive drinking not only harms themselves but also others. One set of guidelines must focus upon protecting the public from drunk driving as well as a wide range of other accidents, plus alcohol-related violence and criminal activity. We must also make environments safer: and then, following Raymond Chandler’s advice, let’s not get snotty about those who occasionally get drunk in safe environments.