We don't need one more drink

Michael Farrell wonders what has motivated the Government to lift accepted safe alcohol levels

Related Topics
The Government is too close to the alcohol and tobacco industry for the good of the people's health. It firmly opposes any ban on tobacco advertising. And yesterday, as the World Health Organisation launched its largest conference ever on the health risks associated with alcohol, the Department of Health announced revised guidelines universally perceived as an increase in the recommended sensible drinking limits.

These limits previously stood at 21 units of alcohol a week for men and 14 for women. The Government has now announced daily limits - three to four units a day for men and two to three for women. The old sensible limits were backed as recently as June in a report by the Royal Colleges of physicians, psychiatrists and general practitioners and endorsed by the Brit- ish Medical Association.

However, the Government has been under intense pressure from the alcohol industry to modify these sensible limits. An internal working group of civil servants reviewed the scientific evidence ostensibly on the links between alcohol and coronary heart disease and produced conclusions at significant variance with all recent UK reports.

The Royal Colleges' report, Alcohol and the Heart in Perspective: sensible limits reaffirmed, stated that alcohol consumption of one to two units a day protects middle-aged men against coronary heart disease and that alcohol may possibly have a protective effect in women, but it stressed thatagainst this must be set the harmful effects of alcohol.

Approximately one third of men and 10 to 15 per cent of women already drink more than the existing recommended sensible limits. In 1990 the Government, in its Health of the Nation strategy, set a target to significantly reduce the number drinking above these limits. Subsequent surveys have shown no changes in the numbers drinking above these levels. Despite this, the Government has now in effect increased the levels for safe drinking to a level that is against current medical advice. The single unit a day increase for women amounts to a rise of 50 per cent in recommended consumption and an increase of one third for men.

The Government has adopted a highly peculiar health promotion strategy by providing a choice of figures for the public to pick from. It has in effect squeezed up the levels while managing also to quote the more scientifically validated figure of two units for women and three units for men. This could be interpreted as a cynical move to improve its failing chances of hitting its target, but is more likely to be driven by the revenue benefits to be accrued by the likely increase in per capita consumption.

While one extra unit a day may seem little to debate over, it is clear that the resounding pre-Christmas message to the public is that they can drink more and drink more often.

In the sale of addictive substances such as alcohol and tobacco there is always a balance between economic gain for the Treasury and the damage to the public's health. Yesterday's guidelines are a clear victory of Treasury over health and are the culmination of the alcohol industry's long-term pressure on the Government. Thus, at a time when the Government's strategy to reduce those drinking above the sensible limits is clearly failing, the Government has reduced taxation on whisky, increased children's access to public houses and recommended higher levels of consumption in a manner that is most likely to increase the health and social burden of alcohol-related harm on society.

In the same year the Government's new drug strategy consultation rejected proposals that alcohol and tobacco be included as part of the overall plan. Thus at a time when the Government wishes to give a firm message to young people against drug use it sends out the opposite message on alcohol and tobacco to the adult population.

The alcohol industry will applaud these changes as it pushes to maximise pre-Christmas sales, but the high cost of these changes will accumulate inexorably over the coming years.

The writer is senior lecturer and consultant in alcohol and drug dependence, National Addiction Centre and Maudsley Hospital, London.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
A solar energy farm in France  

Nature Studies: For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight the countryside

Michael McCarthy
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea