Industry leaders were "disappointed" not to be involved in a consultation, and have stated intentions to study the evidence for the new guidelines.
Chief medical officer (CMO) Dame Sally Davies announced guidelines today due to health concerns following recent research.
New advice includes:
- Do not regularly drink more than 14 units per week (roughly six pints of beer or seven glasses of wine)
- It is best to spread drinking evenly over three days or more
- There is no 'safe' level of drinking, new guidelines simply minimise risk
- The risk of developing illnesses such as cancers of the mouth, throat and breast increases with any amount you drink on a regular basis
- Have several drink-free days each week
- Pregnant women are advised not to drink any alcohol at all
- Evidence that a small amount of alcohol is good for you is weaker than previous guidelines suggested
- If you have one or two heavy drinking sessions, you increase your risks of death from long-term illnesses and from accidents and injuries
Government advice has drastically reduced the intake levels for some because previous guidance suggested a higher allowance of 3-4 units per day for men and 2-3 for women.
Guidelines have not been reviewed in 20 years. Work on the review has been under way since early 2013 after the Science and Technology Committee recommended guidelines should be reviewed in the light of emerging evidence.
Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) chief executive Miles Beale said: "Twenty years after the original guidelines, all labelling advice is out of date overnight. We are disappointed that the guidelines are expected to come in with immediate effect and that Government's industry partners have not been involved in any consultation.
"The WSTA will now review the scientific evidence that has led to the suggested changes - some of which establish a new international precedent.
"It is well documented that 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 10 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.
"We look forward to talking to the Government about the changes, the evidence and guidelines in due course."
"Importantly, changes to the guidelines will not automatically lead to changes in consumer behaviour. It will be vital to explain to the public why the advice has changed and why it is different to advice in other EU countries – so that they are not confused by new guidance."
Henry Ashworth, chief executive of responsible drinking organisation Portman Group, said: "The vast majority of us – more than four in five adults – drink within the current lower risk guidelines. 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."
Study the evidence
British Beer and Pub Association chief executive Brigid Simmonds said: "We want to study the evidence fully but it is important that consumers have confidence in any guidelines and the reasons for any changes are clearly evidence-based and explained.
"Reducing the guideline figures means that a whole new group of males are classified as 'at risk' drinkers and there is a real danger that consumers will just ignore the advice.
"The new recommendations for men, in particular, put the UK well out of line with other comparable countries. The USA recommends weekly figures of 24.5 units. France 26, Italy 31.5, and Spain 35 units. In other countries, most guidelines recognise the difference in terms of physiology and metabolism between men and women.
"It is also important to note that alcohol consumption is falling (down 19% since 2004) and harmful drinking is also falling. Between 2005 and 2013, men drinking more than the guidelines dropped from 41% to 34% and women from 33% to 26%."
The ALMR has warned that the Government runs the risk of confusing consumers regarding safe drinking practices.
Chief executive Kate Nicholls said: “The guidelines draw a link between alcohol intake and associated health risks, but go on to say that regular drinking levels increase the chance of dying from an alcohol-related condition by just 1%. By the Government’s own admission, drinking at regular levels is no more dangerous than a host of everyday activities. What is being lost here is the fact that low levels of drinking remain very low risk.
“What consumers need is clear, practical advice based on undisputed evidence to allow customers to make informed choices. There seems to be little agreement, even among health experts, about the evidence to back up the latest proposals.
“It is worth remembering that levels of alcohol consumption have been falling steadily and are at their lowest this century. Much of the work of the licensed hospitality sector in recent years has been focused on providing consumers with greater choice and our venues remain committed to promoting healthy, responsible drinking practices in a supervised environment.
“The ALMR will be responding to the Government’s consultation to push for clear and concise, information that is practical, evidence-based and which we feel is robust and reliable.”
Drinkaware has welcomed new guidelines. Chief executive Elaine Hindal said: "We welcome these new alcohol guidelines, which will help people make better choices about their drinking and give them practical advice – such as taking drink-free days – to reduce the short and long-term health risks of alcohol.
"Our own research suggests that, aside from the well-known impacts on the liver, broader alcohol-related health risks such as heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer are not commonly understood by many people.
"Lowering the limit for men to 14 units per week – around six pints of average strength beer – bringing it in line with the maximum limit for women, may help to simplify the message that excessive drinking carries an increased risk of heath harms.
"We also welcome the new, clearer advice to pregnant women not to drink at all to keep the risks to their baby to a minimum. We will support the CMO in communicating the new advice through our website and resources as soon as is practically possible."
For more information on the new alcohol guidelines visit https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/check-the-facts/what-is-alcohol/new-government-alcohol-unit-guidelines.
Tim Page, Campaign for Real Ale, chief executive, said: “The best kind of health advice is that based on clear and undisputed evidence. We are uncertain whether there is sufficient agreement among experts to support these new guidelines. We will be consulting with our members and other consumers to find out their views on the guidance and will feedback their opinions to the Chief Medical Officer.”
Mike Benner, Managing Director of the Society for Independent Brewers, said: “It is clearly important for the industry to consider the scientific evidence behind the new guidelines, not least because there is a widespread recognition of evidence of certain benefits associated with moderate and responsible consumption of alcohol. I think many men who regularly consume between 14 and 21 units of alcohol a week will be surprised to suddenly find themselves in an ‘at risk’ category and this may affect the guidelines’ credibility with many responsible drinkers, not least because they are significantly lower than guidelines in various other countries.
"It’s also the case that the wider benefits on well-being and happiness which stem from the the responsible enjoyment of alcohol in a sociable environment such as a pub have been ignored and the industry and others need to work together to bring evidence to support this view to the fore. Enjoying a couple of beers in a pub with friends and colleagues at the end of a hard day can bring positive benefits to peoples’ lives
"Britain’s independent craft breweries take pride in brewing fine high quality beers to be enjoyed by people who appreciate flavour and distinctiveness, responsibly and in moderation. I believe that, if people do respond to these guidelines by drinking less then they will inevitably turn to higher quality products for every occasion.”