Recommended alcohol unit intake reduced: The effect of wine or beer on health is more complicated than the chief medical officer would have us believe

Chris Snowdon
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I have been predicting for years that the day will come when the recommended drinking level falls to zero. Today’s lowering of the weekly limit for men to a miserly 14 units (seven pints of beer) brings that day a little closer.

It is clear from reading the chief medical officer Sally Davies’ report that she believes that teetotallism is the healthiest option. She repeatedly emphasises that even 14 units a week is not a safe level.

There is a problem for her, however. Mountains of evidence from all around the world has shown for decades that moderate drinkers live longer than abstainers. Alcohol not only brings joy to people’s lives, it also protects their heart.

On the other hand, as the CMO is quick to point out, there is also evidence that even light drinking can increase the risk of several cancers. What, then, is the safe limit? The truth is there isn’t one.

You can reduce your risk of heart disease or you can reduce your risk of certain cancers. You can’t do both.

The evidence suggests that the optimum amount to consume is a medicinal measure of around one unit per day. This seems to reduce overall mortality risk by fifteen per cent, not a trivial effect. But even people who consume three or four drinks a day have a lower risk of early death than the people who do not drink at all.

In a study conducted by the noted epidemiologists Richard Doll and Richard Peto in 1994, the people who drank around 20 units per week had the lowest rate of heart disease but even those who were drinking 60 units had lower rates than the teetotallers. These findings were replicated by Doll in 2005 and have been found time and time again in studies all over the world.

Why is the CMO telling us that there is no safe level of alcohol when the evidence clearly shows that people can drink a considerable amount before they assume the same risk as someone who does not drink at all? Why are we told that 14 units is the upper limit when drinking 20 units offers more health protection that going teetotal?

I think there are two reasons. Firstly, the CMO is a dyed-in-the-wool public health activist who would like to see the government get tougher on drinking. By lowering the guidelines, she has dragged hundreds of thousands of moderate drinkers into the at-risk category, thereby creating a problem that has to be solved.

Secondly, the public health lobby don’t think we can handle complicated advice. For them, things have to be either good or bad. Sugar? Bad. Olive oil? Good. It becomes a headache for them when things like cholesterol and alcohol turn out to be less simple than that - beneficial in some circumstances, deleterious in others.

Rather than face up to those complexities they offer the public a simple message that booze is bad and that there is no safe limit.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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