Alcohol Guidelines - Science and Technology Committee Contents

5  Conclusions

Evidence base

63. We were disappointed to find that alcohol consumption guidelines for the general adult population had not been formally reviewed since 1995. Since then, a greater body of scientific evidence has emerged that challenges the guidelines. In particular, more studies have emphasised the causal relationships between alcohol and cancers, and the theory that drinking alcohol at low quantities may confer health benefits has been vigorously disputed. Having taken into account recent updates to the guidelines on drinking during pregnancy and for people under 18 years, we have nevertheless concluded that a review of the evidence base would be worthwhile and timely. At a time when the Government is putting efforts into encouraging people to drink within guidelines, we consider that a review of the evidence would increase public confidence in the guidelines.

64. The review of the evidence base should be conducted by an expert group, including amongst its members civil servants and external scientific and medical experts from a wide range of disciplines, including representatives from the devolved administrations. The group should review:

a)  The evidence base for health effects of alcohol including risks and benefits;

b)  Behavioural and social science evidence on the effectiveness of alcohol guidelines on (i) informing the public and (ii) changing behaviour;

c)  How useful it would be to introduce guidance on individual drinking episodes;

d)  What terminology works well in public communication of risks and guidelines; and

e)  Whether further research is needed, particularly for the alcohol-related risks to specific demographic groups (for example, older people).

The group should provide a recommendation to Government on whether the current alcohol guidelines are evidence-based, and if they are not, what the guidelines should be changed to.

Public understanding and communication

65. We were pleased to find that the Government is promoting sensible drinking messages through initiatives such as the Public Health Responsibility Deal. Public awareness of the guidelines has been improving, although there is a long way to go. While many members of the public have heard of alcohol units and the guidelines, far fewer people understand how to translate them into practice.

66. We consider that the Government, industry and charities should emphasise in public communications:

a)  The specific risks associated with drinking patterns, that is, (i) the acute risks associated with individual episodes of heavy drinking and (ii) the chronic risks associated with regular drinking;

b)  That there are situations where it is not appropriate to drink at all, for example while operating machinery; and

c)  That people should have some drink free days every week.

67. Having explored the complexity around the risks faced by different groups of people, for example women, pregnant women, older people and young people, we consider that while simplicity of advice is preferable for public communication, complexity should not be avoided if it improves public understanding and confidence in the guidelines. For example, the guidelines for children and young people are more complex than for adults but are also clear, concise and leave no room for misinterpretation, and we consider that guidelines for adults could be similarly expressed.

68. We recommend that there should be an online resource where individuals could obtain more individualised advice where factors such as weight, age, ethnicity and family history of alcohol problems could be taken into consideration. This resource should include links to sources of further information and support, and recommendations on whether to seek further expert medical advice. We consider that this resource could help dispel people's notions that generic alcohol guidance does not apply to them. Charities such as Drinkaware and other organisations should develop methods of increasing access to this type of individualised advice for those who have limited or no access to online resources.

69. The cooperation of the drinks industry is essential if the Government wants to achieve the Public Health Responsibility Deal's alcohol pledges. However, the Government should remain mindful that sensible drinking messages may conflict with the business objectives of drinks companies, and should therefore exercise scrutiny and oversight to ensure that any conflicts of interest are mitigated and managed.

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 9 January 2012