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Safe drinking guidelines 'plucked out of the air'

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The UK government's guidelines on how much it is safe to drink are based on numbers "plucked out of the air" by a committee that met in 1987.

According to The Times newspaper, the limits are not based on any science whatsoever, rather "a feeling that you had to say something" about what would be a safe drinking level.

This is all according to Richard Smith, a member of the Royal College of Physicians working party who produced the guidelines.

He told the newspaper that doctors were concerned about mounting evidence that heavy long term drinking does cause serious health problems. But that the committee's epidemiologist had acknowledged at the time that there was "no data", and that "it's impossible to say what's safe and what isn't".

"Those limits were really plucked out of the air. They were not based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee," he said.

However, Mr Smith says this doesn't mean alcohol is not dangerous. He later told The Guardian that this would be a "serious misinterpretation" of his comments. He also argued that the figures were "in the right ball park", and called for heavier taxes to cut consumption.

There are clearly two very different issues intertwined here: firstly, the potential for alcohol, when taken to excess, to do serious damage to a person; secondly, the propensity of successive governments to make hand waving judgements about public health issues based on no data whatsoever.

(The latest bunch revised its advice to pregnant women on what could be considered a safe amount to drink while pregnant from a little, occasionally, to none at all, ever. Again, this advice is based on no new evidence.)

The current guidelines suggest that men should drink no more than 21 units per week, and women should stick to 14 units or less. Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians acknowledged that the limits can only be a guide to behaviour.

He told the Guardian that people who stick to these limits are unlikely to suffer mental, physical or social damage from alcohol. ®

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