Will the English soon cut back on their glasses of claret? The United Kingdom Department of Health, led by Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, released new guidelines on alcohol consumption today, in which the country's chief medical officers reject any suggested health benefits of wine or other alcoholic beverages. Drinking alcohol is unsafe at any level, they warn, arguing that even small amounts may increase the risk of cancer and other health problems. The guidelines also slash recommended drinking levels for men to no more than one drink per day.
The severe recommendations come as a shock to many, as England now has one of the strictest drinking guidelines in the world.
By comparison, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture issued their 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans a day earlier. The U.S. report maintained its mantra of moderation—one drink-equivalent per day for women and up to two for men. Within these parameters, alcohol "can help individuals achieve healthy eating patterns," the report read.
The U.S. report did revise its definition of what a typical alcoholic drink is, now classifying a "drink-equivalent" as 0.6 fluid ounces of pure alcohol. That's equal to 12 ounces of beer at 5 percent alcohol, 5 ounces of wine at 12 percent alcohol and 1.5 ounces of spirits at 40 percent alcohol.
Since alcohol levels (and how much people pour) varies, the U.S. guidelines give examples of how many "drink equivalents" various drinks contain. If you like large wineglasses and pour yourself 9 ounces of that 12 percent alcohol wine, you're having "1.8 drinks" according to the guidelines. If your wine clocks in at 15 percent alcohol, 5 ounces is equal to "1.3 drinks."
The U.K.'s version of the drink equivalent is the "alcohol unit," which is approximately 0.3 fluid ounces of pure alcohol. The old U.K. guidelines recommended 21 units per week for men and 14 for women. Now, the recommendation for both men and women is just 14 units per week. So using the example of a 5-ounce glass of wine at 15 percent alcohol, the U.K. guidelines limit consumption for men (and women) to just over six glasses per week, while the U.S. guidelines suggest no more than 11 for men and five and a half for women.
Why the considerable change in London? The previous U.K. guidelines were issued in 1995 and in recent years some health advocates there had called them outdated and confusing. One particular criticism was a guideline allowing up to 4 units per week for expectant mothers, a deviation from most international standards. Another was that new research had raised questions about links between wine and breast cancer and throat cancer.
In 2012, Davies commissioned a group of experts to research and update the guidelines. According to their report, the group reviewed "the evidence from 44 systematic reviews and meta-analyses" published since the 1995 guidelines came out. They concluded that, "stronger evidence has emerged that the risk of a range of cancers, especially breast cancer, increases directly in line with consumption of any amount of alcohol."
What about possible health benefits of wine? Davies and her team largely dismissed the extensive research into alcohol and red wine's potential to aid in the prevention of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. "An old wives' tale," Davies told BBC Radio.
Responding specifically to the question of whether moderate alcohol consumption can help heart health, the U.K. review concluded that any protective cardiovascular effects from wine only help women over 55. They argued that confounding factors, such as that people who drink wine tend to live healthier lifestyles, may have been a factor behind studies showing a benefit and that those benefits come as long as consumption is low.
"The group therefore concluded that the evidence supporting protective effects today is now weaker than it was at the time of the 1995 report and that there are substantial uncertainties," the guidelines stated. "Taking this into account alongside all the known acute and chronic risks to health from drinking even at low levels, supports the conclusion of the group that there is no justification for recommending drinking on health grounds, nor for starting drinking for health reasons."
Dr. Roger Corder of Queen Mary University in London and author of The Red Wine Diet found that conclusion unjustified. "It has been my recommendation for many years that people should drink less and drink better (i.e quality)," Corder told Wine Spectator. "However, the chief medical officer’s report seems ill-informed and poorly thought through. The report doesn’t appear to have been peer reviewed by other experts in the field. There are a number of important failings in the recommendations that will inevitably lead to the guidelines being discredited."
Corder said the report chiefly cites one study to dismiss wine's cardio-protective benefits. "This study does not examine the influence of different types of alcohol, and certainly doesn’t consider red wine as a separate entity. The [population studied] is women-orientated and has a limited number of men from traditional red wine–drinking countries. Claims that red wine are not cardio-protective cannot be based on a population where red wine is not the main alcoholic drink."
Corder does think drinking rates are too high in the U.K. But he believes these guidelines lack credibility, which will only lead people to ignore them. That, he argues, makes this a lost opportunity.