British health officials say drinking alcohol regularly increases the risk of cancer. And they’ve issued tough new guidelines that could prove hard to swallow in a nation where having a pint is a hallowed tradition.
Britain’s chief medical officer says in recommendations published Friday that men and women should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol — about six pints of beer or four large glasses of wine — per week, and consuming below that amount still carries a low risk of liver disease or cancer.
Alcohol is a known carcinogen. In the United States, experts estimate about 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths are alcohol-related. People who have more than about four drinks daily run up to triple the risk of contracting cancers of the head and neck than non-drinkers.
Here are questions and answers about the British guidelines and their likely effect:
For women, the guidelines remain unchanged, recommending no more than 14 units a week.
Men, however, had previously been told they could drink up to 21 units a week. That now drops to the same limit as for women. The original guidance was published in 1995, before many links between alcohol and cancer were detected.
Friday’s updated guidance clarifies advice to pregnant women, recommending they avoid alcohol “as a precaution.” The recommendations say “the risk of harm to the baby is likely to be low if a woman has drunk only small amounts of alcohol before she knew she was pregnant or during pregnancy.”
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no known safe level of alcohol consumption for women who are trying to get pregnant or already in pregnancy.
WILL BRITONS GO TEETOTAL?
Almost certainly not in a nation known for its ales and its pubs. Lax control of retail sales and cheap alcohol has fueled a rise in binge-drinking, which Prime Minister David Cameron once declared a national scandal. Even the new guidance acknowledges that people are unlikely to give up drinking and does not call for abstinence.
To help Britons avoid binge drinking, the government recommends that people spread their drinking over at least three days a week. It warns that the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat and breast increases with any amount drunk on a more regular basis.
“This is not a crackdown on alcohol,” said Dr. Niamh Fitzgerald, a lecturer in alcohol studies at the University of Stirling, who was not involved in drafting the government guidelines. “It is about supporting people to make up their own minds.”
HOW DOES THIS COMPARE WITH OTHER COUNTRIES?
Each country measures alcohol consumption differently. Brtiain’s guidelines are stricter than those of other European countries in Europe, notably Ireland and Spain, but similar to U.S. expert recommendations. According to American dietary guidelines, women should drink no more than one drink a day and men should have no more than two.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE SUPPOSED BENEFITS OF ALCOHOL?
While some studies suggest that drinking moderate levels of red wine is good for the heart, British officials say that applies only to women over the age of 55, particularly those who drink no more than about two glasses a week. The British report said it “concluded that there is no justification for drinking for health reasons.”
WHAT’S THE VIEW DOWN AT THE PUB?
“This won’t change a thing,” said David Evans, an engineer enjoying a pint at a north London pub.
He said he regularly exceeds the new limit of about six pints of beer a week in a single day and has no intention of changing his drinking habits. “A lot of people will let their own body tell them what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said.
U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage said the advice was “over the top” and called for a mass protest against such “nannying.”
“We all know there is a big problem with excessive alcohol consumption in this country,” he told LBC radio. “But frankly, if we choose to enjoy a few drinks four or five nights a week after a hard day at work, whether it slightly shortens our lives or not, so what?”