The NHS is preparing to reduce safe drinking limits following new evidence that alcohol is linked to certain cancers, including breast and bowel cancer.

Chief Medical Officer Dame, Sally Davies, is to overhaul the guidelines on the maximum daily and weekly amounts of alcohol that should be consumed by men women later this year.

Current recommendations of safe limits are almost 30 years old, which outline that men should have no more than three to four units a day, the equivalent of a pint of strong lager.

They also outline that women should have no more than two or three units, which is the equivalent of one large glass of wine. Weekly limits state that men should not exceed 21 units and women should not exceed 14.

Rather worryingly in 2007 Dr Richard Smith, a member of the Royal College of Physicians panel that drew up the guidelines in 1987 said “Those limits were really plucked out of the air. They were not based on any firm evidence at all. It was sort of an intelligent guess by a committee.”

During the near 30 years of the limits’ lifespan, there has been a great amount of research linking small amounts of alcohol to several types of cancer.

Alcohol Cancer Risks

Breast cancer was found to have the strongest link with alcohol, with studies showing that just one glass of wine a week raises the risk by 15 per cent. As many as 1 in 5 cases of breast cancer are caused by drinking and it has also been linked to cancers of the mouth, throat, liver and bowels.

Now doctors are urging that substantial changes need to be made to the government guidelines.

Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, suggested that other countries may be leading the way. She said: “Both Canada and Australia reviewed their drinking guidelines recently and, based on the latest available evidence, set lower limits for regular alcohol consumption than the current UK weekly guidelines.

“This would suggest there is good reason to revise the UK guidelines downwards. Since the British guidelines were established, more data has become available about the health risks associated with regular drinking, including the relationship between alcohol and cancer.

“The World Health Organisation advises there is no safe drinking for cancer prevention so we would expect our guidelines to include this information so that consumers are able to make informed decisions about their drinking.”

Still a Risk when Drinking Current ‘Safe’ Limits

Professor Rajiv Jalan, who specialises in liver diseases at University College London, said that damage could be caused to the body in men drinking just three units of alcohol a day, well within the government limits.

He conducted an experiment involving twin brothers who drank 21 units of alcohol a week for a month. One was drinking the entire allowance of units in one weekly sitting, while the other twin drank three units a day.

After the experiment both twins showed signs of having increased the risk of disease. Professor Jalan said: “We think 21 units (a week) is probably not safe for men. What we found is that it creates an inflammatory response.

“The person who was binge drinking was terrible but the person who was not bingeing, who was drinking three units a day, was also compromised at the end of the month. [The safe limit] is almost certainly less than it is stated at the moment.”

A major alcohol charity, Alcohol concern, has launched an awareness campaign alerting the public to the risk drinking can have towards cancer.

Jackie Ballard, Alcohol Concern’s chief executive, said no amount of alcohol was ‘safe’ and that it is “important that people are aware of the risks associated with its use.”

A Department of Health spokesperson confirmed the guidelines were being reviewed and would be published later this year.

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