Whilst some students may have been delighted to hear SmithÂ’s disclosure that safe alcohol limits, set in 1987, were Â“an intelligent guess,Â” was this really such a surprise? It is well known that itÂ’s impossible to create recommendations that suit all. Individual tolerance depends not only on height, weight and sex, but also on the efficiency of metabolising enzymes, diet and even the strength of your immune response.
It was claimed that the government has ignored subsequent research suggesting alcohol limits should be raised. Indeed some studies have found evidence that moderate drinking can prove beneficial to health. However, it is still the case that plotting alcohol consumption against survival produces a J shaped curve, indicating that Â‘safeÂ’ levels can very rapidly become harmful.
In 2000 a World Health Organisation study defined drinkers as low, medium or high risk of chronic alcohol-related harm. For men limits were defined as less than 35, 36-52.5 and above 53 units respectively. Yet units are measured differently depending on which country you live. For example in Britain one unit of alcohol is 8 grams of pure ethanol, whereas in America it is 14. Some countries including Canada donÂ’t even recommend different levels for males and females.
This all may sound very confusing but the suggestion that we can all safely drink more because the statistics have no firm scientific basis is to miss the point entirely. Indeed Smith never meant to suggest heavy drinking was not harmful and that the guidelines are Â“useless.Â” He confirms that the figures of a weekly maximum of 21 units for men and 14 for women are Â“in the right ball parkÂ” and that his comments were taken out of context.