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How Much Alcohol Is Considered Safe?

A rehab organisation has offered a shot of reality about safe alcohol consumption guidance in the UK and other European countries, and drawn attention to how people could find themselves under the influence but still be considered to be within the realms of safe drinking.

The NHS advises men and women not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis, and if someone regularly drinks as much as 14 units a week, to spread drinking over 3 or more days. A pint if medium-strength beer (5%) is 3 units, while a medium glass (175 mL) of lower-strength wine (12%) is 2 units.

In 2021, Drink Aware highlighted that the percentage of adults aged 18 and over who were drinking alcohol at increased or high risk levels was 19% in England, 18% in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, and 16% in Wales.  Across the UK, the charity highlighted that around twice as many men as women were drinking alcohol at increased or high risk levels – specifically, England 26% vs 12%, Scotland 24% vs 12%, Wales 23% vs 10%, and Northern Ireland 22% vs 14%.

Sobering Statistics

Even more sobering were the statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in their December 2022 report Alcohol-specific deaths in the UK: Registered in 2021. In the report, the ONS alerted that in 2021 there were 9641 deaths, or 14.8 per 100,000 people, from alcohol-specific causes registered in the UK, the "highest number on record".

The number recorded in 2021 was 7.4% higher than in 2020 and a staggering 27.4% higher than in 2019, the last pre-COVID-19 pandemic year, stressed an ONS spokesperson.

Consistent with previous years, the ONS said that the rate of alcohol-specific deaths for males in 2021 remained around double the rate for females – at 20.1 and 9.9 deaths per 100,000 people, respectively. 

Scotland and Northern Ireland were the UK constituent countries with the highest alcohol-specific death rates in 2021, with 22.4 and 19.3 deaths per 100,000 persons, respectively. England and Wales continued to have lower rates of alcohol-specific deaths, with 13.9 and 15.0 deaths per 100,000 persons, respectively, the ONS reported. 

Of note was that, according to Landgeist , outside the UK, the highest death rates per 100,000 persons due to alcohol use in Europe were found in Eastern Slovenia (19.7), Western Slovenia (12.7), Bremen (19.0) and Hannover (14.2) in Germany, and Pomorskie (15.9) in Poland.

Attitudes and Advice Continues to Change

Now, a new report published on behalf Delamere – a private rehabilitation clinic –has delved into alcohol consumption and popped the cork on the number of units of alcohol residents of different countries are not recommended to exceed on a regular basis. The results, a spokesperson for the organisation said, "vary dramatically according to each nation".

In European countries the guidance differs significantly. Poland decants the largest amount, allowing 2.5 units for women and 5 for men per day, which equates to 17.5 units for women, and 35 for men, per week.

The country offering a relative thimbleful is the Netherlands, which advises residents to drink no alcohol at all, or at least not more than one glass per day, for men and women.

A spokesperson for Delamere explained that other countries around the world were also taking a similar approach to the Netherlands and highlighted how, in January this year, Canada had announced that it would be changing its alcohol consumption guidance, to a"zero alcohol approach", as it was the only way to "ensure no associated risks from drinking". In the US, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that adults who choose to drink do so in moderation, with one drink or less a day for women, and two drinks or less a day for men.

In the report, Dr Catherine Carney, resident psychiatrist at Delamere, pointed out that "less than 40 years ago, in1984, health officials recommended no more than a whopping56 standard drinks a week for men, and 35 for women". In 1987, these numbers were reduced to up to 21 units of alcohol per week for men, and 14 units for women.

In the past, adverts for Guinness had recommended their product to pregnant women, "based on the fact that – unsurprisingly – people claimed to feel 'good' after drinking the beverage", Dr Carney pointed out.  

More recently, in1995, pregnant women were being advised not to drink more thanone to two units of alcohol once or twice a week. However, in 2016, expert wisdom stipulated thatno amount of alcohol was deemed totally safe to consume during pregnancy. The NHS now emphasises that drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to a baby, with the risk increasing as more alcohol is consumed, and recommends if a woman is pregnant or planning to become pregnant she should not drink alcohol. 

"To say attitudes towards drink have changed a lot over time would be an understatement," said Dr Carney.