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Drink too much? Move to Chile
Chris Smyth,The Times
April 13, 2016 11:03AMS
Australia makes no distinction between men and women in their drinking guidelines.
If you like a drink but are worried about your health, you might want to move to Chile, or the United States. Men there can get through five glasses of wine a night before doctors think they are having too much, according to a study that found huge variations in national alcohol guidance.
Countries have no clear definition of “a drink” and some allow five times as much alcohol as others in a day, according to American researchers.
Britain issued fresh guidance in January, telling people not to drink more than 14 units a week, about a bottle and a half of wine or five pints of beer. Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, said that the guidance was based on the most up-to-date evidence that regular consumption increases the risk of cancer.
However, researchers at Stanford University have pointed to a striking discrepancy in the advice given internationally. “Someone’s got to be wrong - or everyone could be wrong,” Keith Humphreys, who led the research, said. He looked at 75 of the world’s more advanced countries, and found that only 37 had official guidelines. Fewer than half of those used the World Health Organisation’s definition of one drink as containing 10g of pure alcohol - including Britain, which defines a unit as containing 8g.
“In the UK the guidance struggles because people think of a drink as a pint and that’s two [units],” he said.
Austria has the largest standard drink in the world at 20g of alcohol, which “could be to do with schnapps or those big steins”, Professor Humphreys said. Luxembourg uses a bafflingly precise 12.8g, while Japan has no definition.
Women in Portugal and Sweden are told to drink no more than 10g a day, less than a glass of wine, but Chilean and American men can put away up to 56g a day and be considered low risk
. However, they are advised to take alcohol-free days. Poland and Vietnam have the highest weekly limits at 280g.
Australia and South Africa, like Britain, make no distinction between men and women. [The Australian government’s revised 2009 guidelines advise both men and women to drink no more than two standard drinks per day to reduce their health risks over a lifetime.] "It’s not scientifically possible that women should drink [a bit] less than men, half as much or the same as men. But we find all these things in the guidelines,” Professor Humphreys said.
He argued that guidance reflected cultural choices, not pure science. “Governments and countries make judgments that are more than empirical,” he said. “In some it’s socially unacceptable for women to drink whereas in others there’s a feminist understanding that women shouldn’t be embarrassed to drink as much as men.”
All countries agreed that large amounts of alcohol were dangerous, he said. The debate was “more around whether it’s one, two or three” daily drinks.
Uncertainty in the evidence is at least partly a result of people lying about how much they drink and Professor Humphreys said that “a certain amount of humility would be appropriate” from the authorities. “Public health people approach life in terms of risk minimisation but the rest of us approach life at least partly in terms of fun,” he added.
Christopher Snowdon, of the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: “To trust the chief medical officer’s latest advice, we must believe that every other country in the world has got it wrong. That requires a degree of patriotism that I am unable to summon up.”
However, Katherine Brown, director of the Institute for Alcohol Studies, said: “Many countries established alcohol guidelines at different points in time, based on what data was available to them, so some may be outdated.
“The new UK low-risk drinking guidelines are based on the most up-to-date evidence available.”