Australian health authorities are unlikely to change current alcohol consumption guidelines from 10 standard drinks a week, despite Canadian officials now recommending just two tipples over the same period.
Canada released new guidelines this week recommending its citizens drink no more than two standard drinks a week to prevent the risk of illness and disease, such as cancer.
The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction cut down its advice from a previous recommendation of no more than 10 drinks for women a week and 15 drinks for men, warning that even moderate drinking poses serious health risks.
By contrast, Australia’s recommendation is five times Canada’s new advice at 10 standard drinks a week, and no more than four a day, for men and women.
But Assoc Prof Michael Livingston, an alcohol policy researcher at Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute, said the difference in Canada and Australia’s recommendations reflects a difference in risk appetite rather than a failure to keep up to date with the latest evidence.
Australia’s guidelines of 10 drinks a week risks a less than one in 100 chance of dying of an alcohol related condition, whereas Canada’s recommendation of no more than two drinks reflects a zero chance, he said.
“The fundamental challenge of drinking guidelines is what threshold of risk is more appropriate,” Livingstone said. “There isn’t a magic line in the sand that we all agree upon.”
According to the Cancer Council, alcohol increases the risk of eight different types of cancer, including breast, bowel, stomach and mouth.
At the beginning of January, the World Health Organization released a statement in health journal The Lancet that said evidence showed there is no safe amount of alcohol consumption.
It pointed to a study published in 2021 that found light to moderate alcohol consumption in the European Union, which is the equivalent of two standard drinks a day in Australia, was associated with almost 23,000 new cancer cases in 2017.
Almost half of the cases were breast cancers in females, and a third of cases were associated with drinking one standard drink a day.
A spokesperson for the National Health and Medical Research Council, which develops Australia’s guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol, said it had noted the update to Canada’s guidelines.
They added that the guidelines, which were last reviewed in 2020, are by a group of independent health experts and include reviews on the health effects of drinking alcohol as well as Australian drinking patterns.
“The [guidelines] state that not drinking at all is the best way to reduce the risk of harm from alcohol,” the spokesperson said. “The risk rises the more a person drinks.”
Livingstone said he expects the advised limit on standard drinks will be more restrictive when the guidelines are reviewed in seven to eight years’ time, but he doesn’t think there is an urgent need to change them now.
Prof Emmanuel Kuntsche, director of La Trobe’s Centre for Alcohol Policy and Research, agrees an urgent review isn’t needed. But he said there is a need to better educate people on the advice and risks.
Part of the issue, he said, is the battle between what public health organisations think is acceptable and what the alcohol industry wants.
When it was recommended Australia put health warning labels on alcohol beverages two years ago, Kuntsche said the compromise with the alcohol industry was that the label specifically warn pregnant women of the risks rather than risk factors for the broader community.
“Having that warning was of course a step in the right direction, but alcohol is not only harmful for pregnant women,” he said.
“People don’t actually realise what the recommendations, and also the risks are, so the guidelines are just one piece of that puzzle and [alcohol consumption] won’t change much if it’s not well communicated.”