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Doctors condemn 'drink for health' advice

Suggestions that people should drink to prevent heart attacks are emphatically rejected in a report by the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Psychiatrists and General Practitioners, a copy of which has been obtained by the Independent.

The study is expected to set the tone in the increasingly acrimonious debate on safe drinking levels at a time when the Government is reviewing its ''safe drinking'' message.

The drinks industry and some academics sympathetic to it want to see the guidelines relaxed, while independent experts fear any encouragement to people to drink more will cause harm far greater than the benefits to some drinkers.

The Royal Colleges' study, which is in draft form but has already been cleared by two of the colleges, supports the fear that the scientific findings about the benefits of moderate drinking will be misinterpreted by many people.

The report accepts recent evidence that moderate drinking can protect middle-aged men from heart attacks. But it concludes that there is no evidence that wine, particularly red wine, is more protective than other alcoholic drinks. The largely anecdotal evidence that wine drinkers have fewer heart attacks may have more to do with the way wine is drunk, compared with the binge-drinking of other beverages, the report suggests.

The Department of Health is reviewing the sensible drinking message, which says that men who drink less than 21 units of alcohol a week (a unit is a half pint of beer, a glass of wine or a measure of spirits) and women drinking less than 14 units are within safe limits. The Royal Colleges' report is expected to have a major impact on the Government's conclusions, to be published in the new year.

''A public health recommendation that stressed the positive effects of alcohol is likely to do more harm than good,'' the report concludes. The doctors cite evidence that an increase in consumption of only 1.5 drinks a week would cause a 10 per cent increase in heavy drinking. The social costs of more drinking include more drink-driving accidents, violence and child abuse, family breakdown, fires and absence from work.

The doctors point out that people around heavy drinkers bear the heaviest costs, and note that already 25 per cent of all deaths in road accidents, 40 per cent of deaths from falls and 15 per cent of drownings are alcohol-related.

Leading article, page 15