New British drinking guidelines are now in effect. The British Department of Health has lowered its recommended drinking limits.
The New British Drinking Guidelines
Drinking Alcohol and Cancer Risk.
Previously, the government recommended that men drink no more than 21 units per week. (Generally, a pint of lager or a glass of wine has around two units.) Women were to consume no more than 14 units per week.
The new standard is 14 units per week for both man and women. The UK is now one of only six countries* in the world to have the same recommendation for both sexes.* All other countries have a higher limit for men than for women.
The reason is simple. Men can consume much more alcohol and still have the same blood alcohol concentration (BAC) as women. That’s true even if they are both of the same height and weight. See Alcohol is Sexist: It’s Unfair and Unjust, but Important to Know.
The UK has one of the lowest alcohol limits in Europe. It ranks ‘alongside Netherlands, Poland and Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Denmark and Germany. However, in the majority of those countries men are advised they can drink twice as much as their female counterparts.’1
Britain’s Chief Medical Officer, Sallie Davies, also suggested a number of new restrictive guidelines. But why?
Anti-alcohol activists and temperance promoters dominated the meetings to develop the new alcohol guidelines. The guidelines should be based on medical evidence. But conspicuously absent were medical experts or representatives of medical organizations.
The Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS), an anti-alcohol organization, was heavily represented on the committee.
The IAS began as the National League for the Total and Legal Suppression of Intemperance. It soon changed its name to the UK Alliance for the Suppression of the Traffic of All Intoxicating Liquors. It later became the UK Temperance Alliance. Now it’s the Alliance House Foundation. Its official objective is ‘to spread the principles of total abstinence from alcoholic drinks.’
In the 1980s, part of it became the deceptively objective-sounding Institute of Alcohol Studies. But it remains a strongly temperance organization.
The Director of the IAS, Katherine Brown, was on the committee. So was its adviser, Gerard Hastings.** He was joined by IAS adviser Petra Meier.
Neo-prohibitionist John Holmes of Sheffield University was a member. So was Ian Gilmore. He is chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance. That’s an anti-alcohol organization of which the IAS is a member. Gilmore is a ‘staunch anti-alcohol campaigner.’2 Among his goals is a total ban on all alcohol beverage advertising.
Member Mark Bellis had written an article shortly before joining the committee. In it, he argued that existing alcohol recommendations were much too high. He said they “read more like an alcohol promotion slogan.”3 Members Mark Petticrew and Theresa Marteau are also temperance-oriented.
Tim ‘Stockwell is the world’s most persistent and prominent critic of the evidence showing that moderate alcohol consumption saves lives.’4 He was not a member of the committee. But he was a consultant. And his controversial minority opinion framed the committee’s work. Indeed, his opinion pieces were frequently cited.
Of course health recommendations should be based on scientific medical evidence. Not on opinion. And certainly not on the opinion of a highly biased activist critic. Yet they were.
The committee had its own private agenda in developing the new British drinking guidelines. And it didn’t want to be bothered by medical facts. That’s why the committee explicitly rejected any ‘call for evidence, preferring instead to rely on their own wisdom. Several new reports were commissioned, but all were co-authored by members of the committee.’5 (
The committee systematically minimized the many health benefits of drinking in moderation. At the same time, it systematically exaggerated the few health risks of doing so.
The temperance-oriented committee was clever but dishonest. The best measure of health and longevity is all-cause mortality. Other things being equal, how long do abstainers live? Light drinkers? Moderate drinkers? Heavy drinkers?
The problem for the committee was simple. It’s that light and moderate drinkers tend to live longer than both abstainers and heavy drinkers. Research has demonstrated this for decades around the world.
The solution was also simple. Ignore all-cause death rates. Instead, focus on death from “chronic alcohol-related causes.” Of course, alcohol abstainers never die from such causes. But drinkers do. Problem solved.
The country’s Chief Medical Officer, Sallie Davies had stuffed her committee with temperance activists and neo-prohibitionists. The committee, in turn, had even insisted that there is no such thing as safe drinking.
Not surprisingly, Davies accepted her committee’s recommendations. But then she went even further than the committee. She publicly and falsely described the health benefits of drinking as ‘an old wives’ tale.’6
The Royal Statistical Society criticized the the guidelines. It said they give statistically unjustified advice that would cause unnecessary fear among the public. This is inconsistent with giving people accurate information. Thus, they are unable to make informed choices.
After Davies announced her new guidelines, the U.S. reaffirmed its existing alcohol guidelines. They provide that men can drink twice the amount of alcohol as women. It also stands by the estimate that about 26,000 lives are saved in the U.S. a year because of lower ischemic heart disease, ischemic stroke, and diabetes. Drinking in moderation saves these lives.
Graham Stringer is a member of the House of Commons science and technology committee. He told the Times of London that the the role of anti-alcohol and temperance activists in developing the new British drinking guidelines is ‘a serious cause for concern.’7 Stringer warned that this could cause the public to distrust the advice.
Former Health Secretary Lord Landsley stressed that ‘There’s no point in trying to scare the public – they must be presented with good quality information on a high quality evidence base.’8
Davies has refused to modify the new British drinking guidelines to conform to medical evidence. Will the public follow these faulty recommendations?
*Among the others are Albania, Guyana and Grenada.
**Gerard Hastings failed to disclose his association with the IAS in his required declaration of interests.
1. Paskin, B. Drink less than 14 whiskies a week, UK told. Skotchwhisky.com Jan 8, 2016.
2. Snowdon, C. No wonder Britain’s alcohol guidelines are so extreme – just look at who drafted them. Spectator Health, Feb 25, 2016.
6. Singleton, N. The Great Alcohol Cover-up. Aprol 11, 2016.
7. Cameron, D. Dry advice’¦. Ill Bev Guide, 2016, 16(7), 2.
Resources on the New British Drinking Guidelines
Farrar, D. Capture by activists. kiwiblog.com, March 1, 2016.
Green, S. Controversy behind government lobby to lower alcohol limits. Drinks Bus, June 1, 2016.
Haylor, M. The Vision of a Century, 1853-1953. The United Kingdom Alliance. London, UK Alliance, 1953.
O’Neill, S. Anti-drink lobby drew up official safety limits. Controversial guidance ‘˜induces public fear.’ Sunday Times, May 30, 2016.