Making the announcement just one week after the launch of Government's Christmas drink-driving campaign, Ste-phen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, said there was strong evidence that one to two units of alcohol a day provides "significant health benefits" while up to four units a day for men and three for women "will not accrue any significant health risk".
The new advice goes so far as to say that middle-aged or elderly teetotallers may wish to consider the benefits of "light-drinking", and says that women at any stage of pregnancy can drink up to four units a week.
A spokeswoman for the World Health Organisation described the guidance as "absolutely crazy". Dr Maristella Monteiro, medical officer in the WHO's programme on substance abuse, accused the Government of "being in the pocket of the drinks industry".
John Bowis, the health minister, will today try to defend the Government's position at a WHO ministerial conference in Paris which aims to develop a strategy for cutting alcohol consumption in Europe by 25 per cent by 2000.
The Royal College of Physicians said that people would be encouraged to drink more, and there would be an increase in deaths in road accidents and "social damage in society as a whole". Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of the British Medical Association council, said the advice was "irresponsible and badly timed", and the jury was still out on any health benefits.
Alcohol Concern said the advice should not be taken as a "green light" to drink more.
However, Dr John Rae, director of the Portman Group, a research group representing seven of the UK's leading drink manufacturers, welcomed the Government's "brave risk". He said: "I think it's right and in the long run we'll have fewer alcohol problems if you treat people like adults."
The previous guidance defined sensible drinking limits as 21 units a week (3 units a day) for men and 14 units a week (2 units a day) for women. One unit is equivalent to half a pint of beer, a small glass of wine or a pub measure of spirits. If the new guidance is translated into a weekly figure, it represents an increase of at least 33 per cent.
Mr Dorrell dismissed claims that he was issuing a "boozer's charter'' and said that people had a right to know the latest findings. The advice is based on a study by an inter-departmental working group which considered evidence from almost 90 expert sources. It concludes there is strong evidence that one or two units daily can reduce deaths from coronary heart disease in men over 40 and post-menopausal women. There is no evidence so far of a protective effect in younger drinkers.
Mr Dorrell said: "Alcohol consumption will always be a major public health issue and it is important for the Government to present a balanced view which recognises the risks but also offers soundly based and credible advice on which people can base their own choices."
He said the "most significant" change in the advice was the shift to a "daily benchmark" rather than a weekly amount. Situations in which people should not drink - at work, when driving, using machinery or electrical equipment - remained the same. "The best level here is none," Mr Dorrell said.
Dr Kenneth Calman, chief medical officer, denied that the new "limits" undermined the advice that GPs give to patients, based on the guidance of the royal medical colleges and the BMA. However, his answer to questions at a press conference did little to clarify the issue. "If you drink up to three units a day, there is no adverse affect. If you drink consistently four units a day, you face an increasing health risk," he said.
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