Advice is out of step with medical opinion

New drink guidelines: Doctors and anti-alcohol campaigners have united to oppose government recommendations on intake
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The Independent Online
Government recommendations on alcohol intake have been subject to revision before, but yesterday's announcement is the first time that such advice has been so out of kilter with the opinion of the royal medical colleges, the British Medical Association and anti-drink campaigners.

The medical establishment had suspected that such moves were afoot and had taken action to persuade the Government to think again, with a number of influential reports this year.

In April, the BMA published Alcohol: Guidelines on Sensible Drinking, compiled by its Board of Science and Education, which concluded: "The current limits of 21 units per week for men and 14 for women, should be maintained."

A joint report from the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of General Practitioners in June urged the Government not to raise current safe drinking limits.

At a press conference to launch Alcohol and the Heart in Perspective: Sensible Limits Reaffirmed, senior doctors warned against the powerful influence of the drinks lobby which was pushing the message that alcohol is good for health, and lobbying ministers for a relaxation on limits. Professor Sir Leslie Turnberg, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said the colleges were "absolutely opposed" to raising the limits.

Just last month, the Royal College of Physicians and the British Paediatric Association warned that the drinks industry was targeting young people with a new range of alcoholic lemonades and colas. Its report, Alcohol and Young People, concluded that alcohol was at least as great a threat as illegal drugs to child health.

Prior to this, doctors and the Department of Health had worked in harmony to establish the message of safe or low-risk drinking limits. This concept did not appear until 1984 when the then Health Education Council issued its pamphlet, That's the Limit. This defined the amounts of alcohol - well within "safe limits" - to which people were advised to limit their drinking. For men it was 18 "standard drinks" (equivalent to units) a week and 9 for women. "Too much" was defined as 56 a week for men and 35 for women.

In the 1987 edition of the leaflet, the sensible limit - defined in units for the first time as the limits above which health risks could accrue - were set at 21 units a week for men and 14 units a week for women. These were endorsed by the royal colleges, and officially adopted by the Government in the Lord President's Report on Alcohol Misuse in 1991. They were used to set targets in The Health of the Nation for reducing alcohol misuse in 1992.

However, throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s studies were being reported which suggested that moderate alcohol consumption had a protective effect on the heart.

This led to doubts about the possibly restrictive nature of the guidelines - especially as some countries with low rates of heart disease, such as France, had a much higher alcohol intake overall - and widespread confusion on the "to drink or not drink" issue.

In 1994, the Government set up its inter-departmental working party which reported yesterday to review the current sensible drinking limits.

Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, dismissed suggestions that publication of the report, less than two weeks before Christmas, had any sinister motive. However, leading doctors who have repeatedly issued warnings of the insidious influence of the drink manufacturers, insisted that the timing was calculated to instil a false sense of security in people who like to drink but worry about their health.