The guidelines recommend that women trying to get pregnant and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding steer clear of alcohol for the safety of their babies. Children under the age of 18 should not drink any alcohol, they say.
Chair of the NHMRC alcohol working committee Professor Kate Conigrave, a clinician and researcher at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the University of Sydney, said since the previous alcohol guidelines were created there had been more research showing links between alcohol and the risk of cancer from “fairly low levels” of drinking.
“Even one or two a day, on average, is increasing your risk of breast cancer compared to people who don’t drink,” she said.
At the same time, there had been a “weakening of the evidence” of the potential benefits of alcohol, said Professor Emily Banks, an epidemiologist and public health physician at the Australian National University and deputy chair of the alcohol working committee.
The new guidelines were a balance between acknowledging alcohol was a thing people enjoyed and reducing the harm it caused.
“If you want to absolutely minimise your risk of alcohol-related harm, people can choose not to drink at all,” Professor Banks said.
Acting Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said there were 4000 alcohol-related deaths every year and 70,000 hospital admissions, with alcohol linked to more than 40 medical conditions.
“Following the guidelines keeps the risk of harm from alcohol low but it does not remove all risk,” he said.
The guidelines have been calculated so people have less than a one in 100 chance of dying from an alcohol-related condition.
On Monday, Alcohol Beverages Australia chief executive Andrew Wilsmore said the draft guidelines, released a year ago, were harsher, more restrictive and less balanced.
“They do not provide more hope of being found to be acceptable by the public and arguably stand far less chance of public acceptance,” he said. “Australians should not be made to feel guilty about enjoying a drink or a couple sharing a bottle of wine over dinner.”
But Australia is not alone with the 10-drink a week recommendation. Professor Banks said it brought the country into line with France, Denmark, the United Kingdom and proposed guidelines in the United States.
“It pans out to a couple of drinks a day and having a couple of alcohol-free days,” she said. “One bottle of wine is about six to eight standard drinks, so you can share a bottle … But don’t have more than that on a given day.”
Professor Banks said it importantly clarified the message around drinking and pregnancy.
“We have no evidence of a safe level of consumption in pregnancy,” she said.
Now the guidelines have been adopted by the government, Professor Conigrave said she hoped they would be used by GPs, medical specialists, midwives, dietitians and the fitness industry.
“Most of all, we hope that everyday people use them,” she said.
Rachel Clun is a federal political reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, covering health.