Drinkers should have at least two alcohol-free days each week, a committee of British MPs has recommended.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee also called for a review of safe drinking guidelines but ruled out any increase in drinking limits.
“Alcohol guidelines are a crucial tool for government in its effort to combat excessive and problematic drinking:” committee chair Andrew Miller said.
“Unfortunately, public understanding of how to use the guidelines and what an alcohol unit looks like is poor, although improving.
“While we urge the UK health departments to re-evaluate the guidelines more thoroughly, the evidence we received suggests that the guidelines should not be increased and that people should be advised to take at least two drink-free days a week,” he said.
In 1987, the “sensible limits” for drinking were defined as 21 units of alcohol a week for men and 14 for women. By the early 1990s, scientific evidence had emerged suggesting that alcohol consumption might reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, prompting a review of the guidelines.
The government then recommended that drinking guidelines should be couched in daily terms: men should not regularly drink more than three to four units a day and women no more than two to three units a day.
The committee’s report said members found a lack of expert consensus over the health benefits of alcohol and are therefore sceptical about using the purported health benefits as a basis for daily guidelines for the adult population.
“It is clear that any protective effects would only apply to men over 40 years and post-menopausal women, yet the guidelines apply to all adults,” the report said.
The committee also found that while public awareness of the existence of guidelines was high, a deeper understanding of what the guidelines were and what a unit of alcohol looked like was lacking.
The government has set the drinks industry a target of ensuring that by 2013 at least 80 percent of alcoholic products on sale will have labels showing alcohol unit content.
But the committee warned: “The government should remain mindful that sensible drinking messages may conflict with the business objectives of drinks companies and exercise proper scrutiny and oversight.”
The Royal College of Physicians’ special adviser on alcohol, Sir Ian Gilmore, echoed calls for a review of guidelines and demanded a minimum price for alcohol.
He said: “The RCP believes that in addition to quantity, safe alcohol limits must also take into account frequency.
“There is an increased risk of liver disease for those who drink daily or near-daily compared with those who drink periodically or intermittently.”
Andrew Langford, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said: “The Trust supports the recommendation that the guidelines should not be increased and that people should be advised to take at least two consecutive alcohol-free days a week.”
Langford added: “However, we would like bolder steps taken and believe it would support public understanding if the health warnings that were included are similar to that on tobacco products, clearly stating the potential harm, providing immediate and easy-to-understand awareness.”