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Industry blindsided by latest government drinking advice

Published:  08 January, 2016

The UK government's revised guidelines for alcohol consumption, which are now among the strictest in Europe, have taken the drinks trade by surprise.

The new advice, published today, was drawn up by the government's chief medical officer without any consultation with the industry.

The guidelines, which have not previously been revised for twenty years, come into effect immediately.

Under the revised rules, the recommended weekly limit for men has been cut by a third, down from 21 units to 14 units, in line with the existing advice for women.

Drinkers are advised to have several alcohol-free days each week and to otherwise spread their consumption evenly.

Pregnant woment are advised to eliminate alcohol entirely.

Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirits Assocation, said: "We will now review the scientific evidence that has led to the suggested changes - some of which establish a new international precedent.

 "As is well documented we have seen significant successes in changing consumer behaviour through the Responsibility Deal, including an almost 19% drop in alcohol consumption in the UK over ten years.

"This has been achieved by government, industry and the public health community working together.

"Twenty years after the original guidelines were issued, and following a two year wait, we are surprised that the guidelines are expected to take effect immediately.

"Given the significant progress made voluntarily through the Responsibility Deal we are disappointed that the industry has not been involved.

"The drinks industry working with government has voluntarily exceeded an 80% target delivering the current CMO guidelines on alcohol labelling.

"This was achieved ahead of schedule and at no public cost. This labelling advice is out of date overnight.

"Changes to the guidelines will not automatically lead to changes in consumer behaviour."

Henry Ashworth, chief executive of the Portman Group, said:  "Guidelines are important because they help people make informed choices about their own drinking so it's vital that they are trusted and understood by consumers.

"What is surprising is that the UK is breaking with established international precedent by recommending the same guidelines for men and women.

"It also means that UK men are now being advised to drink significantly less than their European counterparts."

A spokesperson for the Scottish Whisky Association said: "The SWA welcomes the clarity of the advice for pregnant women and believes the move to weekly guidelines is also sensible, reflecting that the majority of people in the UK do not drink on a daily basis.  

"That said, the reduction of the weekly guideline for men is significant and it will be important to assess how men who considered themselves to be drinking at sensible levels react to the revised guidance."

Speaking to the Guardian, Sir David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the public understanding of risk at University of Cambridge, said: "These guidelines define 'low-risk' drinking as giving you less than a 1% chance of dying from an alcohol-related condition.

"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."