The full extent of the links between alcohol and cancer were not previously understood when the original guidelines came out in 1995, says the report.1 The new guidelines have been set at a level to keep the risk of mortality from cancers and other diseases low.2

What are the main changes to the recommendations?

  1. Reduced units for men. Previous guidance suggested no more than 21 units for men and 14 units for women. To keep health risks low, men are now advised to also not drink more than 14 units of alcohol each week.
  2. There is no safe limit. The latest Committee on Carcinogenicity review found that drinking even a small amount of alcohol increases the risk of some cancers compared with people who do not drink at all.
  3. Pregnant women advised not to drink at all. Previous guidance stated that if women did choose to drink, they could drink up to one or two units of alcohol once or twice per week.

For the first time, the guidelines also include advice on single episodes of
drinking. The advice includes limiting the total amount of alcohol drunk on any one
occasion; spreading the 14 units evenly over at least three days, and drinking more slowly, with food, and alternating with water.

Dame Sally Davies said: “What we are aiming to do with these guidelines is give the public the latest and most up to date scientific information so that they can make informed decisions about their own drinking and the level of risk they are prepared to take.”

Alcohol and cancer

We have strong scientific evidence that all types of alcoholic drinks can increase the risk of five types of cancer: mouth and throat, oesophagus, bowel, breast and liver cancer.3

Many cases of these cancers could be prevented; for example, around 22 per cent of breast cancer cases could be prevented every year in the UK if all women stopped drinking alcohol.

What can health professionals do?

Encourage people to reduce the amount of alcohol they drink by:

  • Opting for the smallest serving size and avoiding double measures of spirits
  • Diluting alcoholic drinks e.g. shandies, and alternating alcoholic drinks with water
  • Keeping a few days each week alcohol-free
  • Download our A Closer Look at Alcohol factsheet

References

1. GOV.UK. Health risks from alcohol: new guidelines. 2015.

2. GOV.UK. Consumption of alcoholic beverages and risk of cancer. 2015.

3. World Cancer Research Fund. Alcohol and cancer prevention. 2015.