New U.K. alcohol guidelines note increased risk for cancer

Officials lowered suggested safe quantities of alcohol, stressing moderation and awareness of consumption levels.
By Stephen Feller  |  Jan. 8, 2016 at 1:23 PM
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LONDON, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- New British guidelines on alcohol consumption suggest people drink less, based on studies showing the more a person drinks the greater risk for a range of cancers.

While the suggested limit on alcohol intake remained unchanged from the previous guidelines for women at 14 units per week, equivalent to about five to six glasses of wine or six pints of average strength beer, men are now advised to limit themselves to 14 units per week as well, down from 21 units.

In addition to calling for overall less consumption, U.K. Chief Medical Officers said in the new guidelines the benefits of alcohol for heart health apply only to women over age 55 and that there is no "health reason" to justify drinking.

The report from U.K. Department of Health's Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food said the links between alcohol and cancer were not fully understood, though new research since the original guidelines were issued in 1995 has made the health risk of drinking more clear.

"Drinking any level of alcohol regularly carries a health risk for anyone, but if men and women limit their intake to no more than 14 units a week it keeps the risk of illness like cancer and liver disease low," Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer in England, said in a statement. "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."

The committee has been collecting and analyzing studies on cancer and alcohol consumption since 2013, which they report show some cancers are more common among people who drink more.

Their findings support a view shared by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer, which determined in 2009 that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of cancers of the mouth and throat, larynx, esophagus, colon, bowel, liver, breast and pancreas.

The committee found drinking even 1.5 units of alcohol per day increases the risk of larynx and colorectal cancers, and that liver and pancreas cancer are more common in people who drink about six units of alcohol per day.

The risk of developing cancer increases the more a person drinks, though there isn't much research on the effects of binge drinking. While most studies focus on the effects of alcohol consumed over weeks or months, the committee nonetheless suggests limiting levels of drunkenness on any one occasion. Rather than saving up the recommended 14 units per week for one or two days, the committee says to spread them out.

The committee says to spread the 14 units out, but to also avoid drinking for two consecutive days so the liver can repair the damage it sustains when processing alcohol.

The risk of cancer from excessive drinking also can be mitigated by quitting drinking, though the risk decreases slowly.

"The purpose of these new guidelines is to provide the public with the latest accurate information on how they can reduce health risks from alcohol, if they choose to drink," Dr. Niamh Fitzgerald, a professor of alcohol studies at the University of Stirling, told the BBC. "Most people are aware of the links between smoking and cancer, but far fewer are aware of evidence linking alcohol consumption with an increased risk of future health problems, in particular cancers of the mouth, intestines and breast cancer in women."

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