New alcohol guidelines rethink how much is safe to drink

Australians are being warned to cut the number of alcoholic drinks they consume each week, in the first review of official health guidelines in 10 years.

The new draft guidelines recommend that both men and women consume no more than 10 standard alcoholic drinks a week – and no more than four standard drinks in any one day.

That is down from the current recommendation of no more than two standard drinks a day (14 a week).

The draft guidelines also specifically advise that pregnant and breastfeeding women, or women trying to become pregnant, drink no alcohol at all.

And children and teenagers under 17 years of age should abstain from alcohol completely, the draft guidelines say.

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) chief executive Professor Anne Kelso says the new guidelines reflect concerns around the health risks of alcohol.

“It’s 10 years since our last review of the guidelines and we now know more about the effects of alcohol,” Prof Kelso says. “We know that alcohol continues to have significant direct health consequences for many Australians.”

The health risks of drinking alcohol

There are about 4000 deaths and 70,000 hospital admissions related to alcohol in Australia each year.

“Alcohol is linked to more than 60 medical conditions, particularly numerous cancers. We’re learning that alcohol is linked to health harms even at low levels of consumption,” Prof Kelso says.

Cancer Council Australia nutrition and physical activity committee chair Clare Hughes says studies have shown alcohol increases the risk of some cancers including mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, breast, bowel and liver.

NHMRC alcohol working committee chair Kate Conigrave says she has seen firsthand the harms from alcohol.

“Young people in the emergency department with alcohol poisoning – having drunk so much they can’t keep themselves safe. Some at risk of their breathing stopping. I also see the smashed up faces – young and old,” Dr Congrave says.

“On the other hand, I also see people who used to drink too much but who have now cut back or stopped. Their sleep has improved, their mood has improved, their blood pressure has returned to normal. So working out what amount of drinking is OK for health is so important.”

Calls for more action on alcohol

University of Queensland School of Public Health professor Jackob Najman says the new guidelines acknowledge for the first time a direct link between the amount of alcohol consumed and the risk of harm.

“Australians are being informed that alcohol consumption at all levels, including moderate levels of consumption, lead to harm,” he says.

“Surely it is time for warning labels on bottles of alcohol that reflect the wide range of harms associated with the moderate consumption of alcohol.”

Ms Hughes says it is also important that people understand that they should not drink all 10 standard drinks on one occasion.

“An overall weekly amount does not mean you can save your drinks for one or two nights of the week,” she says.

“It is important to understand that any level of alcohol consumption increases your risk of cancer so the less you drink, the lower your risk of alcohol-related harm.”

Draft alcohol guidelines in a nutshell

  • Healthy adult men and women: Drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than four standard drinks on any one day. ​For some people, not drinking at all is the safest option.
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women: Women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should not drink alcohol.
    For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking alcohol is safest for their baby.
  • Children and young people: Children and young people under 18 years of age should not drink alcohol.

The draft guidelines are open for public comment until February 24, 2020.

Written by Michelle Rose.