New Alcohol Guidelines launched

Date published: 08 January 2016

The four UK Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) have today launched new Alcohol Guidelines.

Know Your Limits
Know Your Limits

These proposals set out the professional, technical and scientifically-based, public health advice from the four UK CMOs on alcohol consumption.

Speaking about the new guidelines, Dr Michael McBride Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland, said: “In line with our overarching public health strategy, Making Life Better, I believe it is vital that people have access to the most up-to-date advice and information so as they can be empowered and supported to take healthy decisions to improve their own health and wellbeing.

“Many people drink alcohol, and most do so in ways that do not significantly put them at risk of alcohol related harm, but new evidence has emerged on the potential risks and benefits from alcohol consumption. That is why over the past two years, my colleagues and I have been working to produce revised alcohol guidelines. Informed by a number of expert panels, we have looked at the medical and clinical evidence, as well as the evidence around how such guidance affects behaviour.

“Individuals will make their own judgements as to risks they are willing to accept from alcohol, whether to drink alcohol, and how much and how often to drink. These guidelines should help people to make informed choices. They provide information on ‘low risk’ drinking as opposed to ‘safe’ or ‘sensible drinking’. Recent evidence showing alcohol consumption as a cause of certain cancers means there is no level without any risk. While it is possible for most people to drink at low risk, equally most people can lower their long-term health risks further by drinking less than the guidelines or not at all.”

One of the key changes in the guidelines is in relation to Alcohol and Pregnancy. Commenting on this change, Dr McBride said: “We need to be particularly clear about the risks of alcohol during pregnancy – as a precaution pregnant women should avoid alcohol. Although the risk of harm to the baby is low if they have drank small amounts of alcohol before becoming aware of the pregnancy, there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol to drink when you are pregnant.”

There are three elements to the new Guidelines: a weekly guideline for regular drinking; advice on single episodes of drinking; and a guideline on pregnancy and drinking. These are summarised below.

Weekly Guideline for regular drinking:

The Chief Medical Officers’ guideline for both men and women is that:

  • you are safest not to drink regularly more than 14 units per week, to keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level.
  • if you do drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread this evenly over three days or more. If you have one or two heavy drinking sessions, you increase your risks of death from long term illnesses and from accidents and injuries

Advice on single episodes of drinking:

The Chief Medical Officers advise men and women who wish to keep their short term health risks from a single drinking occasion to a low level that they can reduce these risks by:

  • limiting the total amount of alcohol you drink on any occasion;
  • drinking more slowly, drinking with food, and alternating with water;
  • avoiding risky places and activities, making sure you have people you know around, and ensuring you can get home safely

Alcohol and Pregnancy:

The Chief Medical Officers’ guideline is that:

  • if you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to your baby to a minimum.
  • drinking alcohol in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby, with the more you drink the greater the risk

Notes to editors: 

1. The new guidelines for drinking will take effect immediately, although the wording of the guidelines will be issued for a UK-wide public consultation, with an opportunity to respond until 1 April 2016. This consultation will be coordinated by the Department of Health in England in partnership with the Scottish Government, Welsh Government, and Northern Ireland Executive.

2. All the evidence review papers which have contributed to the guidelines review, including expert group meeting papers, will be made publicly available, in line with good practice for Scientific Advisory Committees.

3. The following summarises the changes from the last guidelines:

Weekly Guideline:

  • a single limit for men and women: while men suffer more risks of immediate harm, women are at greater risk of long-term health harm for most levels of consumption and for most age groups; broadly, these balance out
  • a new weekly guideline: this fits better with most people’s drinking than the current daily limit
  • the recommendation for regular drinking is not to exceed 14 units weekly, for men and women
  • for people who do drink as much as 14 units per week, the recommendation is that it is best to spread this evenly over three days or more

Single Occasion Drinking:

  • no numerical guideline limit based on a specific number of units is recommended for drinking on any occasion, however infrequent. Instead the proposed guidance provides more general advice, about limiting the level and pace of drinking, and avoiding risky places and activities; and
  • because there is evidence that guidelines need to be precise about the behaviours being encouraged or discouraged, views will be sought on whether, as an alternative, to set a numerical unit level for this advice. further consideration of the health evidence may be considered that may allow a specific unit level to be set

Alcohol and Pregnancy:

  • all four UK CMOs have agreed to harmonise guidance across the UK. This will make it clear that not drinking alcohol during pregnancy or when planning pregnancy is the safest option, but not an absolute message of ‘no alcohol’

4. The new guidelines also clarify that the benefits of alcohol for heart health are less significant than previously thought and there is no justification for drinking for health reasons. New research shows that in the UK any protective effect matters only at low levels of intake of less than five units a week, and this only applies to women aged over 55. For other groups, any potential benefits are outweighed by other health harms.

5. Units of Alcohol

Information on the number of units of alcohol contained in different types of alcohol products can be found on the Know Your Limits website  

Some examples of the units of alcohol found in typical drinks are:

  • 1 x pint (568ml) standard beer 4% alcohol = 2.3 units
  • 1 x small bottle (187.5ml) wine 12 alcohol = 2.3 units
  • 1 x bottle (330ml) bottle 5% premium lager = 1.7 units
  • 1 x measure (35ml) whiskey 40% alcohol = 1.4 units
  • 1 x measure (35ml) vodka 37.5% alcohol = 1.3 units

6. Media enquiries to DHSSPS Press Office on 028 9052 0579. Out of office hours please contact the Duty Press Officer via pager number 076 9971 5440 and your call will be returned. Follow us on Twitter @healthdpt

Share this page

Back to top