Alcohol: keep a clear head

A new government report on drinking alcohol aims to give us easy to understand, no-nonsense advice. But are we ready to listen?

Is red wine good for you? This seemingly straightforward question has become perhaps one of the most hotly contested health issues of a generation, fuelled by endless studies and conflicting newspaper and magazine articles. Confusion reigns when it comes to alcohol, amid daily revelations about the dangers and benefits of drinking too much, too little or not at all.

 

So it was welcome news yesterday when an influential group of MPs acknowledged the Government's role in creating this confusion and said it was high time that official guidelines were reviewed. The Science and Technology Select Committee has, however, issued some urgent advice, perhaps sensing the dishonour in Britain being crowned the liver-disease capital of Europe.

People must have at least two alcohol-free days a week: an easy to understand message that the Scottish government, which is fast pulling away from England in its willingness to deal with the burdens of alcohol, has already adopted.

Alcohol is rarely out of the news. It's unsurprising given that hospital admissions in England for alcohol-related diseases hit more than a million last year. It fuels half of all violent crimes; and leads to the loss of 17m working days each year.

But despite a long history of alcohol consumption and misuse in the UK, the first attempt by government to introduce guidelines for safe drinking didn't come until the 1980s.

The "sensible limits" advice of 1987 advised a weekly maximum of 21 units for men and 14 for women, guidance widely supported by medical experts.

But by the early 1990s, scientific evidence emerged suggesting that red winemight reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, prompting a rethink. It led to a change from weekly to daily sensible limits, that yesterday's report concludes was probably a mistake. Too many people misunderstood the daily limits to mean it was safe to drink two to four units every day. The committee went as far as to say that the benefits of alcohol have been overstated ever since.

While alcohol is responsible for much more than liver disease, including 12,500 avoidable cancers every year, it is the liver, more than any other organ, which needs time to recover from the thrashing that alcohol gives it. But the alcohol-free-days message, delivered in the right way, could also prevent full-blown alcoholism from taking hold.

Eric Appleby, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, says: "This is sound advice from a health and psychological point of view, as what becomes a habit can slide into an unbreakable habit and then into dependency. While having a couple of days off will make no difference to weekend binge drinking, it would serve as a very useful check for people to make sure they can function with and without alcohol."

The Government is under growing pressure to rethink its imminent alcohol strategy and its guidelines for sensible drinking. Experts argue that these evidence-based policies would help tackle one of the greatest challenges: the change in the way drinks are being made and served.

A pint of beer or lager used to mean, almost uniformly, two units of alcohol, but a trend towards stronger lagers means a pint can be three or even four units. Wines have also got stronger, but the biggest change here has been the serving size: from a standard 125ml to 250ml – a third of a bottle.

In response, the drinks industry has agreed to ensure 80 per cent of products will include units and guidelines on their labels from 2013. The Department of Health say it would consider whether new guidelines were necessary.

Professor Alan Maryon-Davies, from Alcohol Research UK, says: "People need a straightforward, evidence-based message, and it should not be beyond the wit of government to come up with a campaign to bang home that message."

 

Glass half full? Drink advice decoded

The NHS define binge drinking as consuming eight or more units in a single session for men and six or more for women. It officially advises that men should not regularly drink more than three to four units of alcohol a day, while women should not regularly drink more than two to three units a day.

A small (125ml) glass of ABV 11 per cent wine is 1.4 units, while a large glass (250ml) is 2.8 units. However, it makes no difference whether you drink beer, wine or spirits, it is how many units you drink that counts. An average pint of beer (ABV 5 per cent), large glass of wine (250ml, ABV 11 per cent) or large vodka (70ml, ABV 38 to 40 per cent) are all around 2.8 units of alcohol.

Whether or not to drink during pregnancy remains one of the most contentious issues. A recent study found that drinking a little alcohol during pregnancy is fine for most women and having one or two drinks a week while pregnant could give your children a slight developmental advantage. However, the current official line is that pregnant women or women trying to conceive should avoid drinking at all.

Alcohol doesn't just affect the liver (below). There is a direct link between alcohol consumption and cancer: a landmark review last year found that in the UK, drinking is responsible for 2,500 cases of breast cancers, 3,000 bowel cancers and 6,000 cases of cancers of the mouth, throat or windpipe. The researchers extrapolated the results to the general population and estimated that, across Europe, 10 per cent of all cancers in men and three per cent of all cancers in women could be attributed to alcohol consumption.

A 2010 study that compared drinkers in Belfast and several regions in France, where consumption of alcohol is the same but patterns of drinking vary, found that spreading alcohol consumption across the week is better for the heart than a small number of heavier drinking sessions. Binge drinkers are at twice the risk of a heart attack as those who consume the same amount, but spread over the week.

Since the early 1990s it has been suggested that a small amount of alcohol might be a good for the heart. Red wine, in particular, contains antioxidants that help to reduce the build up of atherosclerosis (fat building up on the walls of arteries). However, MPs on the Select Committee now feel the health benefits are limited to men over 40 and post-meonopausal women.

Gillian Orr

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?