MPs on the Science and Technology Committee have called for greater efforts to help the public understand alcohol guidelines. It also calls for a further scientific review to build public confidence, although based on the evidence presented the guidelines should not be relaxed. See here for the report chapters or the full report here.
"Alcohol guidelines are a crucial tool for Government in its effort to combat excessive and problematic drinking. It is vital that they are up-to date and that people know how to use them."
"While we urge the UK Health Departments to re-evaluate the guidelines more thoroughly, the evidence we received suggests that the guidelines should not be increased and that people should be advised to take at least two drink-free days a week."
In 1987 what was known as "sensible limits" were defined as a weekly consumption figure (14 and 21 units). A review of the guidelines came in the early nineties following scientific evidence that moderate alcohol consumption may reduce Coronary Heart Disease risk. From then the Government somewhat controversially switched from weekly to daily guidelines. Although daily guidelines might prevent people from assuming they could 'save their units up', critics highlighted that they "appeared to endorse daily drinking" and so increased possible interpretation of the advised amount by as much as 50%.
The Committee noted that evidence is still equivocal for health benefits of "little and often" consumption, which appear to apply only to men over 40 and post-menopausal women. Nevertheless, alcohol appears to inhibit the formation of coronary fatty tissues, and thus offer some protective effect. In addition the effect of alcohol in reduction of blood clotting plays a part. There is very little evidence for a protective effect on the development of diabetes or cancers. The health benefits have therefore been cited as much overplayed and there is now ample evidence of the cancer risks.
The Committee notes that public understanding of units and how the guidelines apply to them is still poor. Last year a survey found only 2 in 5 adults could identify the unit content in common drinks.
The Committee concludes that a proper review of the evidence should be conducted to review and build confidence in the guidelines. It should include whether guidance should be widened to include individual drinking episodes, and whether further research is needed for specific groups, such as older people. The Committee feels that there is no reason to change the concept of units, but more efforts should be made to explain them to the general public.
In addition, the public should be encouraged to have at least 2 alcohol free days each week, as is the case in Scotland. The Committee recommends an on-line resource where people can obtain individualised advice on alcohol, to counter concerns amongst the public that generalised information does not apply to them.
It also notes that the co-operation of the drinks industry remains important for achieving the Public Health Responsibility Deal's alcohol pledges, though urges caution as "sensible drinking messages may conflict with the business objectives of drinks companies."