Drink limits ‘useless’
Guidelines on safe alcohol consumption limits that have shaped health policy in Britain for 20 years were “plucked out of the air” as an “intelligent guess”.
The Times reveals today that the recommended weekly drinking limits of 21 units of alcohol for men and 14 for women, first introduced in 1987 and still in use today, had no firm scientific basis whatsoever.
Subsequent studies found evidence which suggested that the safety limits should be raised, but they were ignored by a succession of health ministers.
One found that men drinking between 21 and 30 units of alcohol a week had the lowest mortality rate in Britain. Another concluded that a man would have to drink 63 units a week, or a bottle of wine a day, to face the same risk of death as a teetotaller.
The disclosure that the 1987 recommendation was prompted by “a feeling that you had to say something” came from Richard Smith, a member of the Royal College of Physicians working party that produced it.
He told The Times that the committee’s epidemiologist had confessed that “it’s impossible to say what’s safe and what isn’t” because “we don’t really have any data whatsoever”.
Mr Smith, a former Editor of the British Medical Journal, said that members of the working party were so concerned by growing evidence of the chronic damage caused by heavy, long-term drinking that they felt obliged to produce guidelines. “Those limits were really plucked out of the air. They were not based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee,” he said.
Mr Smith’s disclosure casts doubt on the accuracy of a report published this week that blamed middle-class wine drinkers for placing some of Britain’s most affluent towns at the top of the “hazardous drinking” list.
The study, commissioned by the Government, relied on the 1987 guidelines when it suggested that men drinking more than 21 units a week and women consuming more than 14 units put their health “at significant risk”.
In a further attack on Britain’s drinkers, it was revealed yesterday that a coalition of health organisations is mounting a campaign to force a 10 per cent increase in alcohol taxation.
The group, headed by the Royal College of Physicians, is also seeking to secure the support of MPs for stricter regulation of the drinks industry and warnings on alcohol advertising. A total of 21 bodies, including Alcohol Concern and the British Liver Trust, will form the Alcohol Health Alliance, according to Harpers Wine and Spirit magazine.