Happy New Year, everyone!
I hope you had great time at Xmas, I certainly did. I may have over-indulged a bit, but hey! So what? It’s not as if it’ll do any harm, right?
Sorry, what? I didn’t quite catch that. Oh, alcohol consumption can lead to major health risks, you say? And drinking any amount of alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing a range of cancers, including liver, mouth, throat, oesophageal and breast cancers?
Oh, great. Thanks for that. That’s made my bloody day. Spiffing!
So, what is the truth behind the stories splashed all over the tabloids and cluttering up the airwaves? Well, the Chief Medical Officer for England and Wales has issued new guidelines, which reduce the maximum limit of alcohol consumption for men from 21 units, to 14 units (ie. the same as the current limit for women). The CMO has also stated that while there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, the 14 unit limit represents “the level expected to cause an overall lifetime risk of death due to alcohol of approximately 1%”.
Now, the first thing to say is that, as I’ve said before on this blog, what we are talking about here are Risk Factors (see Tough Luck, Stretch!, A Meaty Subject). Drinking alcohol will increase your risk of developing certain medical conditions, cirrhosis of the liver being the most obvious. Drinking is also linked to obesity, which increases the risks of a whole range of other conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
But all of this is associated with heavy drinking. The difference with this new advice is that it seems that low to moderate drinking can also increase the risk of developing conditions such as heart disease, stroke, liver disease and the cancers mentioned earlier. Also, for the first time, it has been stated that the relative risks are the same for men and women. Previously, it was believed that it was safer for men to drink more alcohol than women, due to their (on average) larger size and also having a higher percentage of water in their tissues. However, the new guidelines seem to have dismissed this notion.
So, this is new information…well…some of it is anyway.
The truth is that the link between moderate alcohol consumption and increased risks of cancer is not new, it just hasn’t filtered out to the general public. But again, I stress, we are talking about Relative Risk, not Absolute Risk, so compared to other, more recognisable things such as tobacco and asbestos, the increased risks of cancer from alcohol, while real, are much lower.
So, the big question is…..Will this change the way that people consume alcohol? To be frank, probably not. Even the new guidelines themselves admit that there is “little evidence regarding the impact of any guidelines in changing health behaviours.” And the bare truth is that, while the shiny new limit, 14 units a week, may indeed produce an overall lifetime risk of death due to alcohol of 1%, how does this compare to other, equally TERRIFYING pusuits? Well, Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, University of Cambridge, has said, “An hour of TV watching a day, or a bacon sandwich a couple of times a week, is more dangerous to your long-term health”.
So there we are. A lot of fuss in the media, but everyone will probably carry on much as before. (Goes off to watch telly….grabs a beer on the way).
Department of Health (2016). Alcohol Guidelines Review – Report from the Guidelines development group to the UK Chief Medical Officers http://www.gov.uk
Bagnardi, V., Rota, M., Botteri, E., Tramacere, I., Islami, F., Fedirko, V., Scotti, L., Jenab, M., Turati, F., Pasquali, E., Pelucchi, C., Bellocco, R., Negri, E., Corrao, G., Rehm, J., Boffetta, P., & La Vecchia, C. (2012). Light alcohol drinking and cancer: a meta-analysis Annals of Oncology, 24 (2), 301-308 DOI: 10.1093/annonc/mds337
AG McCluskey (2016). Devil in a bottle Zongo’s Cancer Diaries