Some recent studies suggesting that alcohol can protect against heart disease have been seized on by the industry. It is using lobby groups to pressurise ministers and advisers to modify the recommended level of 21 alcohol units a week for men and 14 for women in the Government's review of drinking limits. (A unit is half a pint of ordinary beer or a glass of wine or a shot of spirits.)
But a survey by three royal medical colleges concludes that relaxing limits would do more harm than good. Moderate intake (1-3 units a day in men and 1-2 in women) appears to protect against heart disease but not in everyone, and "if an individual has reasons for being a non-drinker, we would not recommend that he or she start drinking in order to prevent coronary heart disease," the colleges say.
Above moderate levels there are no additional benefits, and no evidence to suggest that younger people who drink are protected against heart disease later, according to Professor Michael Marmot of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London, and chair of the working party. "Giving everyone the green light to drink would mean an increasing risk of illness and death from causes other than coronary heart disease, and would significantly increase the risk of physical, mental and social damage from alcohol abuse in society as a whole
Prof Marmot said that 27 per cent of men and 11 per cent of women already exceed sensible drinking limits, while in the18-24 age group, 38 per cent of men drink more than they should. "Relaxing the limits and stressing the positive effects of alcohol would be likely to increase alcohol consumption in the total population, and this in turn would increase the proportion of people drinking in higher risk categories."
Dr Fiona Caldicott, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists said the costs to society of alcohol misuse were high and likely to increase if safe drinking limits were raised. About 60 per cent of suicide attempts are linked with excessive drinking; 40 per cent of domestic violence incidents, 15 per cent of deaths in traffic accidents, 26 per cent of deaths by drowning and 39 per cent of deaths in fires.
Professor Sir Leslie Turnberg, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said the colleges were "absolutely opposed" to raising the limits. He condemned the broadcasting authorities allowing advertising of spirits on television. It would be "surprising" if the Government was not being influenced by the wealthy drink lobby, he added.
Earlier this year, the Independent revealed how the Portman Group, which represents eight of the largest drinks producers, was offering to pay researchers to challenge the findings of a new book on the dangers of alcohol misuse.
8 Alcohol and the Heart in Perspective: Sensible Limits Reaffirmed, report of a joint working group of the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of General Practitioners.Reuse content