LONDON — “Good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used,” the villain Iago says in Shakespeare’s “Othello.”
Britain’s government health chiefs appear not to agree. In tough new guidelines issued this week, the first to be issued in 20 years, public health officials warned that Britons should curtail alcohol consumption, saying that any drinking carried potential health hazards, including the increased risk of illnesses such as cancer.
Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, also poured scorn on the notion that a glass of red wine a day was good for the heart, calling it an “old wives’ tale.”
While acknowledging that “I like a glass of wine” and that many people want a ritual drink of some sort, she encouraged Britons to choose tea instead.
“Drink a glass of tea, or cup of tea, instead of a glass of wine and save a glass of wine for a special occasion,” she said.
The new guidelines say that to reduce health risks, men and women should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol in a week, roughly the equivalent of seven glasses of wine, six pints of beer, or half a bottle of whiskey.
The guidelines on alcohol consumption were the first to be issued in 20 years. Credit Luke Wolagiewicz for The New York Times
The previous regulations suggested that men consume no more than approximately nine medium glasses of wine or pints of “strong” beer per week; the weekly consumption limits for women were unchanged.
The report says that drinking within the recommended new limits has risks comparable to “regular or routine activities, such as driving.”
To reduce the risk of death from long-term illnesses, accidents and injuries, medical chiefs suggest spreading the units evenly over three days or more rather than bingeing.
The guidelines also recommend that pregnant women should refrain from drinking altogether, a shift from previous guidelines suggesting a small amount of alcohol was not harmful.
In a country where “lager louts” have been known to wreak havoc, civic groups applauded the new measures and health advocates called them a necessary corrective after decades of new research showed that even moderate alcohol consumption was harmful to the health.
A photograph taken on New Year’s Eve on a street in Manchester gained traction on social media, its composition invoking a Renaissance painting and its content — it showed prostrate revelers — becoming a potent emblem of excess drinking.
But in a nation where neighborhood pubs are part of the national fabric, some drinkers and members of the alcohol industry said the new measures were nothing more than scaremongering and were a symbol of a nanny state.
At The Blacksmith & The Toffeemaker, a pub in central London, a group of student nurses downing pints to celebrate a birthday early Friday evening said the guidelines were sensible, but doubted that they would have much effect in a country where drinking is approached with the zeal of a national sport.
Chris Harrington, 31, said that in a society known for its stiff upper lips, alcohol was a social “enabler” that eased social interaction. “I expect to have four pints of beer and four pints of whiskey by the end of the night,” he said. “Drinking is so embedded in our culture.”
“The chief medical officer has focused on small increases in cancer risk while ignoring the much larger body of evidence that shows moderate drinking reduces heart disease risk and, most importantly, reduces the overall risk of death,” Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at Institute of Economic Affairs, a research group in London that favors free markets, said in a statement.
“Alcohol consumption has been falling for a decade. The change to the guidelines will turn hundreds of thousands of people into hazardous drinkers overnight thereby reviving the moral panic about drinking in Britain and opening the door to yet more nanny state interventions.”
Ms. Davies, the chief medical officer, defended the guidelines as good science based on solid evidence, and said that other countries would follow Britain’s example.
“If you take 1,000 women, 110 will get breast cancer without drinking,” she told the BBC. “Drink up to these guidelines and an extra 20 women will get cancer because of that drinking. Double the guideline limit and an extra 50 women per 1,000 will get cancer.”
“Take bowel cancer in men: If they drink within the guidelines their risk is the same as nondrinking,” she added. “But if they drink up to the old guidelines, an extra 20 men per 1,000 will get bowel cancer. That’s not scaremongering, that’s fact and it’s hard science.”
The dietary guidelines for Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, define moderate alcohol consumption as consuming up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men (a drink is broadly defined as a 12-ounce beer or a 5-ounce glass of wine).
The guidelines note that even “moderate alcohol intake” is associated with “increased risk of breast cancer, violence, drowning, and injuries from falls and motor vehicle crashes.”
In Britain, the Alcohol Health Alliance, which represents over 40 health organizations, said the new guidelines would bring Britain in line with countries such as Canada (10 drinks a week for women; 15 for men) and Australia (for healthy men and women, no more than two drinks on any day is advised).
Back at The Blacksmith & The Toffeemaker, Melody Frankland, 24, another nursing student, said the new guidelines, however noble, would face deep resistance. They brought to mind, she said, her cancer patients who sneaked out of bed to smoke a cigarette. “Might as well die happy,” she said.