A group of MPs says people should have least two alcohol-free days a week and that the current guideliness about safe
drinking are confusing and need revising. In a report released on Monday, The House of Commons Science and Technology
Committee says while public awareness about units of alcohol is high, there appear to be "problems with public understanding of
how many units are in alcoholic beverages".
While they see no reason for changing the established concept of units of alcohol, they consider that effort should now focus on helping people translate the UK guidelines into sensible drinking.
They say people need help to understand exactly how much alcohol they are consuming when they drink a pint of beer, a glass of wine, or a couple of shots of whisky. And they should be advised to have some drink-free days every week.
The UK health departments introduced the public to the idea of "sensible drinking" in 1981, followed in 1987, by the idea of "sensible limits" which were defined as 21 units of alcohol a week for men and 14 for women. These guidelines were also endorsed by the medical Royal Colleges.
But in 1995, after new evidence suggested that drinking alcohol might reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), the guidelines were reviewed and re-issued as the "Sensible Drinking" report, which changed the focus from weekly to daily consumption limits: "men should not regularly drink more than three to four units a day and women no more than two to three units a day".
Now, in this latest review, the committee of MPs says this may appear to endorse daily drinking:
"We are 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."
As well as the need to emphasize the message about leaving some days a week alcohol-free, the committee also concluded that when communicating to the public, the government, industry and charities should highlight the risks associated with different drinking patterns: that is the acute risks of individual heavy drinking sessions, and the chronic risks of prolonged regular drinking. They should also emphasize there are times when people should not be drinking alcohol at all, such as when operating machinery.
The MPs also said the government should commission a review of the evidence, and this would "increase public confidence in the guidelines".
Such a review should be conducted by "an expert group" comprising civil servants and independent scientific and medical experts from a wide range of fields. They should form a view as to whether the current guidelines are supported by the evidence, and if not, then recommend to the government how they should be changed.
The review should cover:
- The evidence surrounding the risks and benefits of alcohol to health.
- How effectively the guidelines inform the public and change alcohol-related behaviour.
- Whether it would be useful to bring in guidance on individual drinking episodes (as opposed to the more generalized weekly or daily limit idea).
- What terminology works well in communicating risks and guidelines to the public.
- Whether we need further studies, particularly to look at alcohol-related risks in specific groups, such as older people.