Will the new UK alcohol guidelines mean we drink less?
February 12, 2016
Last month, the UK’s new alcohol guidelines warned that drinking any level of alcohol increases the risk of a range of cancers – and recommended men and women should consume no more than 14 units of alcohol per week.
But according to a Cambridge expert, the new guidelines “are “unlikely to have a direct impact on drinking” but they do raise awareness of harm so may alter social attitudes towards alcohol.
Professor Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge and a member of the committee that produced the guidelines, says there is little evidence for any effect of health-related guidelines on behaviour.
She added that few people oppose attempts to provide the public with information about health risks, but public support “ebbs away as interventions become more intrusive”.
But she argued that “novel information” on risk can change behaviour – saying that smoking rates fell overnight following the research linking smoking with adverse health outcomes in 1962.
“The new UK alcohol guidelines present novel information on the link between alcohol and cancer,” she said.
In an observation published in the BMJ, she added that following the publication of the guidance, Google Trends showed more searches for “alcohol and cancer” compared with the same week the previous year.
Although more online searching may not reflect less consumption, she says strengthening one negative association with alcohol “may weaken the influences of the many positive associations forged by alcohol marketing.” These include associations between alcohol and sport and comedy, which most 10 year olds recognise.
“The new alcohol guidelines are unlikely to cut drinking directly,” she wrote.
“But they may shift public discourse on alcohol and the policies that can reduce our consumption.
“As the debate around the guidelines continues, with references to the nanny state and the killing of joy, we should keep in focus the objective of alcohol policies: to reduce the blight without losing the delight that alcohol brings.”
Paul Gibbs, consultant transplant surgeon at Addenbrooke’s, said having guidelines were a good thing – but focussing on having alcohol free days rather than counting the units was a more realistic way of cutting down.
And it was important for the government to set targets so people are clear what is a safe level of drinking.
“If the Government wanted to reduce alcohol consumption they could raise the price which would be very unpopular,” he said. “I don’t think it [the guidelines] will have any affect, it won’t have much affect on the amount of drinking. I don’t think people will think about units they are drinking but it’s correct they should put out some sort of safe limit even if the population ignore it.
“What’s easier to think, having a certain number of alcohol-free days each week which is very beneficial. That’s an easy way for people to manage their drinking.”
What are the new guidelines?
– Men should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol each week, the same level as for women.
– This equals six pints of average strength beer a week, which would mean a low risk of illnesses such as liver disease or cancer.
– The previous guidelines were 21 units for men and 14 units for women per week.
– Not to ‘save up’ the 14 units for one or two days, but to spread them over three or more days. A good way to reduce alcohol intake is to have several alcohol-free days a week.
– The guidelines for pregnant women have also been updated to clarify that no level of alcohol is safe to drink in pregnancy.