In our first blog of 2016, we look at the new UK alcohol guidelines, what they say and why they’ve been updated. We also look at the links between alcohol and cancer and what you can do to reduce your risk.

Earlier this month (an alcohol-free Dry January for many people) the government updated the UK alcohol guidelines. The new guidelines make three main recommendations: weekly guidelines on regular drinking, advice on one-off drinking sessions and a guideline on pregnancy and drinking. We’re focusing on the new weekly guidelines here.

1. What do the new weekly alcohol guidelines say?

The new weekly guidelines are the same for men and women:

  • 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 3 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.
  • The risk of developing a range of illnesses (including, for example, cancers of the mouth, throat and breast) increases with any amount you drink on a regular basis.
  • If you wish to cut down the amount you’re drinking, a good way to help achieve this is to have several drink-free days each week.

The new guidelines are clear that ‘no level of regular drinking can be considered as completely safe’ and ‘the risk of a number of cancers increases from any level of regular drinking’.

So, if you drink, you increase your risk of certain cancers. But, you can keep this risk low if you don’t regularly drink more than 14 units a week.

2. How much is 14 units of alcohol?

14 units of alcohol are:

  • six pints of 4% beer
  • six 175ml glasses of 13% wine
  • fourteen 25ml measures of 40% spirits.

In the UK, one unit is 10 millilitres of pure alcohol. And it’s the amount of alcohol in your drink rather than the type of drink that makes the difference, so check the ABV% strength of beer, cider, wine, alcopops and spirits.

NHS Choices has more information on alcohol units, including guides to working out the number of units in your favourite drinks.

3. Why were the guidelines updated?

The old guidelines were 21 units per week for men and 14 units per week for women. But the old guidelines were published more than 20 years ago in 1995. And, in 1995, we didn’t fully understand the links between alcohol and illnesses such as cancer.

In the last 20 years, there has been lots of new scientific evidence establishing the links between alcohol and cancer. The new guidelines are based on reports by expert groups who looked at evidence from 44 different studies published since 1995. The expert groups also worked with other experts from Australia and Canada.

4. Which cancer types are linked to alcohol?

The following cancer types are linked to alcohol:

5. If I drink alcohol, will I get cancer?

No, not necessarily. If you drink alcohol, you increase your risk of cancer. But, you can keep this risk low if you don’t regularly drink more than 14 units a week.

The guideline of 14 units per week is set at ‘a level of drinking where alcohol would be expected to cause an overall 1% lifetime risk of death.’ This 1% increased risk is about the same as the risk involved if you drive a car.

You might think that a 1% risk seems too low to worry about. But, before you reach for the bottle, remember that your risk doesn’t stay at 1% if you drink more than 14 units per week. The more you drink, the bigger your risk.

6. What can I do to reduce my risk of cancer?

We know that many cancers could be prevented by lifestyle changes. Up to 40% of cancers in the UK could be prevented by lifestyle changes.

So, the key message to take from the new guidelines is drinking less alcohol is one of the lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of cancer.

Where can I find more information?

The full Alcohol Guidelines Review (all 44 pages) is available on the UK government’s website. If you’re looking for a shorter read, a six page summary is also available.

The charity Drinkaware aims to reduce alcohol-related harm by helping people make better choices about their drinking. They have more information on the new guidelines.

The NHS Change 4 Life website has tips and advice for cutting down on alcohol.

Cancer Research UK has information on how alcohol causes cancer.

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