Letter: Feeling confused by the figures? Blame it on the drink

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The Independent Online
From Professor B. N. C. Prichard, FRCP

Sir: Now that the initial impact of the Secretary of State for Health's statement on the "sensible drinking" limits has passed, some points need to be made clear. Stephen Dorrell has not raised the limits, but his remarks have been so interpreted. A distinguished patient of mine, a Fellow of the Royal Society, informed me today that 28 units a week was now "safe". Why the confusion?

The statement by the Secretary of State says that three to four drinks per day for men, two to three for women, is not a significant health risk, and a total of 28 drinks per week for men and 21 for women has therefore been understood as the new policy. However, the Secretary of State's statement then says that four or more drinks a day for men and three or more for women - ie any more than the previous advice of 21 and 14 units respectively - is not advisable because of the increased risk to health.

This latter statement is certainly true as, notwithstanding any possible value in relation to coronary heart disease, increasing levels of consumption represent a climb towards hazardous levels. There is much evidence to suggest that alcohol problems in society rise in proportion to the overall level of consumption. These problems are by no means restricted to the strictly medical sphere.

A recent report from the Royal College of Physicians and the British Paediatric Association commented that many children are already adversely affected by their parents' drinking. Another recent report from an All Party Group of MPs quoted figures that alcohol is implicated in up to half of all crimes and even higher proportions of violent offences.

On the BBC's World at One, Mr Dorrell said that he was moving away from a weekly limit as this seemed to allow binge drinking, which was dangerous. This is an important point for him to have made, but I would have liked him to have made it clear that he was advising a maximum of four drinks a day for men, three for women, within the weekly limits of 21 and 14 drinks for men and women respectively.

My FRS patient is clearly not alone in believing that the high levels of consumption, in terms of the population average, of 28/21 drinks per week are now encouraged by the Department of Health. This is the view that was conveyed by the media to the general public. There is clearly a need for clarification.

Yours faithfully,

B. N. C. Prichard


Institute of Alcohol Studies

London, SW1

13 December