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New alcohol guidelines unlikely to cut drinking levels

But they may prompt a change in social attitudes towards alcohol

Ingrid Torjesen

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The UK’s new alcohol guidelines are unlikely to have a direct impact on drinking, but they do raise awareness of harm and so may alter social attitudes towards alcohol, suggests an expert in The BMJ* today.

Professor Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge, and a member of the committee that produced the guidelines, which were published at the start of this year, says while there is little direct evidence about any impact of health related guidelines on behaviour, including for alcohol, novel risk information can change behaviour.

The new alcohol guidelines present novel information on the link between alcohol and cancer.

She points out that, in the week after publication of the new guidelines, Google Trends showed more searches for “alcohol and cancer” compared with the same week in 2015. No similar increase occurred in searches for “alcohol and heart disease” or “alcohol and health.”

Although more online searching may not translate into less consumption, she says strengthening one negative association with alcohol “may weaken the influences of the many positive associations forged by alcohol marketing.” These include associations between alcohol and sport and comedy, which most 10 year olds recognise.

Few people oppose governments intervening to provide information about risks to their health as a prelude to potential behaviour change, explains Professor Marteau, but the public is less accepting of interventions to reduce alcohol consumption based on pricing policies than for providing information or reducing advertising.                                                 

But she says that people “are more accepting of increases to a minimum price for a unit of alcohol when they see evidence of its effectiveness at reducing hospital admissions and crime related to alcohol”.

She believes that the new alcohol guidelines “are unlikely to have a direct impact on drinking. But they may shift public discourse on alcohol and the policies that can reduce our consumption.”

* Marteau TM. Will the UK’s new alcohol guidelines change hearts, minds—and livers? BMJ 2016;352:i704 doi: 10.1136/bmj.i704

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