The UK government is to commission a review of the current guidelines on alcohol consumption. The move is part of the government’s alcohol strategy aimed at curbing excessive drinking and in response to a recent parliamentary committee report on alcohol guidelines.

Dame Sally Davies, principal medical adviser to the government will lead the review, which will examine the current drinking guidelines and the evidence base, the Department of Health announced on Monday.

The current drinking guidelines, which were last reviewed in 1995, state that women should regularly drink no more than two to three units of alcohol a day, and men no more than three to four. Regularly means on most days, or every day.

Two to three units of alcohol is roughly the amount of alcohol in a standard 175 ml glass of wine (ABV 13%). Three to four units is just over the amount of alcohol in a pint of strong lager, beer, or cider (ABV 5.2%).

Guidelines for pregnant women and young people were published in 2007 and 2009.

The Department of Health (DoH) has issued a detailed, paragraph by paragraph, response to the Science and Technology’s Committee Report on Alcohol Guidelines.

In that response, the government says while officials continually review major new evidence to ensure “guidance remains consistent with scientific knowledge”, it agrees with the Committee’s recommendation to review the clinical evidence in relation to alcohol, given the length of time since the adult guidelines were issued.

“The Department of Health will commission a review, led by Dame Sally Davies, as the UK Government’s principal medical adviser to look at the current drinking guidelines, and its evidence base,” says the response.

The government expects the review to pick up a number of points made by the Committee. For instance, whether the guidelines should include advice on alcohol-free days (to give the liver a chance to recover), and cover health benefits and alcohol.

Also whether to separate out single drinking occasions from regular daily limits, and if older people should have separate guidelines.

The aim of the government’s alcohol strategy is to radically change the public’s approach to alcohol and reduce drinking to excess.

The government says it has become acceptable in UK culture to use alcohol to relieve stress. But the fact is it puts too many people at real risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, liver disease and cardiovascular disease.

According to figures from the DoH, 22% of adults (over 9 million people) in England reported drinking above the lower-risk guidelines in 2009.

2010 estimates suggest 19% of men and 12% of women are binge drinkers. This was assessed by asking people if they drank more than double the guideline daily amount on their heaviest drinking day in the previous week.

Alcohol-related harm is now estimated to cost society around £21 billion annually, says the DoH.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD