New guidelines for maximum healthy alcohol consumption issued by the United Kingdom’s chief medical officers have put a crimp in the plans of many partiers. That’s because the physicians dramatically slashed the maximums for men. Now the question is: will the U.S. follow?
The new U.K. guidelines set a weekly limit of 14 units of alcohol - and, urged the National Health Service, spread those units over three or more days, that is, no weekend binging. Not that there is much permitted booze for a good binge. One 750 ml bottle of wine equals 10 units. A pint of 4% beer is 1.8 units. A single (small) shot of booze with a mixer is 1 unit. A standard pour of wine is 2.3 units, per the National Health Service. Do the math. A glass of wine six days in a week is your quota. One dry day per week.
The previous guidelines - issued in 1995 - said men should drink no more than 21 units weekly. Women, then and now, were capped at 14 units.
Questions: why the big drop for men? Will anyone follow these guidelines? Will they cross the pond and become standard health advice in the U.S.?
In the U.S., the official Dietary Guidelines currently say: “If alcohol is consumed, it should be in moderation—up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.” That is in line with the 1995 British advice but vastly more generous than the new U.K. standards for men.
Note: the U.K.’s limit for men is much lower than in many other nations. In Ireland, the limit is 21 units. In Spain, it is 35.
But the U.S. now is much higher than many nations, including Denmark, New Zealand, Japan, Australia and of course the U.K.
Exactly why did the U.K. lower the boom on drinking by men. “These newly issued guidelines have caught up with the most accurate state of the science," said Paul Hokemeyer, an addiction specialist who practices in Manhattan and Malibu. "In looking at this data, researchers found that alcohol has the same pernicious effect on men as it has on women. Historically it was thought that alcohol impacted women more severely because of their body composition- more fat which holds onto alcohol for longer and less of an enzyme that breaks it down. The new data indicates that men are an equal risk to women for developing health related problems.”
Just what health risks are now believed to be associated with alcohol, for both women and men? Dr. Elizabeth Ann Drew, medical director at addictions specialist Summit Behavioral Health, said that although most people could tell you liver disease and cirrhosis can result from alcohol, they are not aware of the other significant health risks including multiple cancers, pancreatitis and heart disease.”
“According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health both men and women have a higher rate of the following cancers due to alcohol: head and neck including mouth, throat and larynx (voice box) which are 2-3 times higher in those who drink 50 grams of alcohol in a day (3.5 drinks)," she said. "Esophageal cancer and liver cancer are also increased.”
But here’s the big question: will the recommendations change drinking behavior in the U.K. - or in the U.S.? Experts expressed guarded optimism.
“Research proves that behavioral changes are most likely to occur when we can see or experience results," said Kristen Lee Costa, a professor of behavioral sciences at Northeastern University in Boston. "For many, cancer seems elusive, but immediate benefits such as elevations in health, mood, energy and focus-all can serve as potential incentives to avoid overuse.”
Drew offered a nuanced prediction. “Unfortunately anyone who is struggling with the disease of addiction to alcohol is not likely to be successful at this," she said. "For others who enjoy a drink regularly it may affect behavior to know that there is an actual difference in mortality and morbidity based on the amount of alcohol that you drink in a week."
“Over time people will listen," Hokemeyer said. "Drinking patterns are culturally influenced and it takes time for the science to integrate into the culture. It is taken decades for American culture to recognize that smoking is extraordinarily unhealthy, but we've gotten there.”
Bottomline: publicans and tavern owners may boo the new regimen, but physicians applaud it. Over time, they say, just as we have cut back on smoking due to health concerns, we likely will do likewise with booze. Just probably not in a spectacular rush. So there’s still time for last call.