The major shift in alcohol guidelines raises questions for Australia

the main points:
  • Health authorities in Canada have issued new guidelines on alcohol consumption.
  • The guidelines also recommend mandatory labeling of all alcoholic beverages with health warnings.
  • Public health experts in Australia welcomed the move as a step in the right direction.
Health authorities in Canada have issued new guidelines on alcohol consumption, recommending one to two standard drinks per week as “low risk”.
The guidelines, released in a report released this week, recommend mandatory labeling of all alcoholic beverages with health warnings.
It’s a significant shift from the country’s previous 2011 guidelines, which limited alcohol consumption to a standard 10 drinks for women and 15 drinks for men, and was in line with Australia.

Some public health experts in Australia welcomed the move as a step in the right direction that reflects the current evidence base on alcohol-related harms.

What are the new guidelines for Canada?

CanadaIt is based on a two-year project by the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) that looked at nearly 6,000 peer-reviewed studies and involved 23 scientists.
It offers a “risk chain” with weekly alcohol consumption, in which the risk of harm from alcohol is low for those who drink two regular drinks or less at that time.

This risk is moderate for those who have three to six regular drinks per week, and the risk of several types of cancer is increased. For those who drink seven or more drinks, the risk is “incrementally high” and the risk of heart disease or stroke is increased.

According to the guidelines, a standard drink is defined as a 341-milliliter bottle of beer (five percent alcohol), a 142-milliliter glass of wine (12 percent alcohol) or 43 milliliters of spirits (40 percent alcohol).

In Australia, one standard drink is defined as containing 10 grams of alcohol.

What is behind the transformation?

Researchers in Canada said the new guidelines are based on developing evidence that lower consumption means lower risks of harm from alcohol.
“The evidence is clear that every drink matters. It’s also clear that it’s never too late to make changes. Any reduction in alcohol use can be beneficial.”
Professor Emmanuel Conchi, director of the Center for Alcohol Policy Research at La Trobe University, said the new guidelines were “a step in the right direction”.
“It’s not just about cutting down on the amount you drink, but also recognizing that any alcohol consumption is harmful,” he told SBS News. “Both recommendations are really important from a public health perspective.”
He said there is growing evidence that low-level heavy drinking poses some level of risk. a which was published in The Lancet Public Health earlier this month, also concluded that no level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health.
Professor Simon Pettigrew, of the George Institute for Global Health, agreed that the evidence continues to mount.
“Broadly speaking, meta-analyses provide new evidence supporting risks associated with alcohol consumption,” she told SBS News.
Claire Hughes, chair of the Cancer Council’s Nutrition, Alcohol and Physical Activity Committee, said experts are learning more about the risks associated with cancer.
“This appears to provide more guidance in terms of the advice society receives about how much alcohol they can or should drink,” she said.

“At the core of the whole discussion, what is the acceptable level of risk?” Professor Konchi said.

What do Australia’s guidelines say?

Australia’s guidelines for reducing risks associated with drinking alcohol were revised in December 2020. They recommend that healthy men and women have no more than 10 standard drinks per week and four standard drinks in any one day.
And they state: “The less you drink, the lower your risk of harm from alcohol.”
Professor Konchi said these revised guidelines are more restrictive than previous ones.
“But countries like Canada are way ahead of that game. I really welcome their approach to more conservative guidance,” he said.

Ms Hughes said the 2020 reviews reflected “tremendous work” and that the Cancer Council was not advocating for the review.

The new guidelines mark a significant shift from Canada’s previous 2011 guidelines. Source: pixabay

Calls for mandatory labeling of alcohol

The report also recommends mandatory labeling of all alcoholic beverages with health warnings.
The evidence shows that additional warnings can increase public awareness of the causal relationship with cancer and reduce consumption.
Prof Pettigrew said this had been proposed for some time in Australia but had not yet come to fruition.
“It took more than a decade to get the pregnancy warning label approved for alcoholic beverages in Australia,” she said, adding that plans are now underway to implement warnings for alcoholic beverages in Europe.

“There is a lot to be gained from ensuring that drinkers are informed,” she said.

Ms Hughes said the Cancer Council recognizes the role warning labels can play in improving community awareness, but this should not be the only way to inform consumers of the risks related to alcohol.

“It’s not just about the poster – it should be part of a larger strategy to raise awareness of the harms associated with alcohol,” she said.

What’s next for Australia?

Prof Pettigrew said she hoped Australia would “continue to move in the same direction with our guidance to ensure society understands the risks associated with alcohol consumption”.
For Professor Konchi, the ongoing discussion about new guidelines and evidence is critical to changing drinking standards in the long term.
“When it comes to alcohol, the one thing that shouldn’t be forgotten is that we don’t have to drink. But we have our consumption standards. And that’s the big problem,” he said.
An analysis from the 2019 National Medicines Strategy Household Survey found that nearly three in four Australians aged 14 and over had consumed alcohol in the past 12 months.
Almost one in two people (45 per cent) agreed with the regular use of alcohol by adults – higher than any other drug.

“If we continue the discussion, I hope that cultural norms will shift towards more restrictive consumption norms – and in this context, the guidelines are very important,” he said.

Ms Hughes said raising awareness of the Guidelines and investing in promotion was crucial.
“There is still a lot of way to go about dealing with alcohol culture in Australia,” she said.
It is important to ensure that consumers “have access to accurate and clear information about what they are consuming and its effects, in order to make informed decisions,” the health department said in a statement.

“Alcohol has been identified as a priority substance in the National Medicines Strategy, as alcohol consumption contributes to a range of adverse health outcomes, and significantly increases the burden of disease in Australia,” the document said.

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