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MPs urge Government to review its sensible drinking guidelines

9 January 2012

Alcohol guidelines should be reviewed, according to a new report that raises concerns about the Government's advice on sensible drinking.

MPs on the Science and Technology Committee conclude that greater efforts should also be focused on helping people understand the guidelines and how to use them.

Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the committee, said:

"Alcohol guidelines are a crucial tool for Government in its effort to combat excessive and problematic drinking. It is vital that they are up-to date and that people know how to use them.
Unfortunately, public understanding of how to use the guidelines and what an alcohol unit looks like is poor, although improving.
While we urge the UK Health Departments to re-evaluate the guidelines more thoroughly, the evidence we received suggests that the guidelines should not be increased and that people should be advised to take at least two drink-free days a week."

Drinking guidelines

In 1987, the "sensible limits" for drinking were defined as 21 units of alcohol a week for men and 14 for women. By the early 1990s, scientific evidence had emerged suggesting that alcohol consumption might reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), prompting a review of the guidelines. The Government therefore recommended that drinking guidelines should be couched in daily terms: men should not regularly drink more than three to four units a day and women no more than two to three units a day.

The committee found a lack of expert consensus over the health benefits of alcohol and is therefore sceptical about using the purported health benefits of alcohol as a basis for daily guidelines for the adult population, particularly as it is clear that any protective effects would only apply to men over 40 years and post-menopausal women, yet the guidelines apply to all adults.

The committee also found that while public awareness of the existence of guidelines was high, a deeper understanding of what the guidelines were and of what a unit of alcohol looked like was lacking.

Public Health Responsibility Deal

Through the Public Health Responsibility Deal, the Government is working with the drinks industry to ensure that over 80% of alcoholic products on shelf will have labels with alcoholic unit content and the drinking guidelines by 2013. The Government should remain mindful that sensible drinking messages may conflict with the business objectives of drinks companies and exercise proper scrutiny and oversight. The Government should conduct an interim assessment of the initiative in December 2012 rather than waiting for the target date of December 2013.

The committee recommends that the Department of Health and devolved health departments should establish a working group to review the evidence and advise whether the guidelines should be revised.

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