We don't need one more drink

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

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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.

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