This week, Chief Medical Officers announced new guidelines on alcohol consumption which suggest that drinking any level of alcohol increases the risk of a range of cancers.

Friday 8 January 2016      Health information blog
alcohol and breast cancer risk

This week, Chief Medical Officers announced new guidelines on alcohol consumption which suggest that drinking any level of alcohol increases the risk of a range of cancers. 

What the guidelines say

Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England, Dame Sally Davies, along with the other UK CMOs, has published new recommendations, following the first full review in over 20 years. These came into effect on 8 January, but the wording of the guidelines is still open to comment until 1 April.

Work started in 2013, and a thorough review of new scientific evidence was led by a panel of experts in public health, behavioural science and alcohol studies. 

Changes to the new guidelines include:

  • Reducing the recommended weekly units for men from 21 to 14 – the same level as for women
  • Encouraging people to have several ‘dry’ (alcohol free) days a week
  • A recommendation to spread your drinking over three or more days to reduce your risk of death from long term illnesses as well as accidents and injuries
  • A clear message that there is no safe level of alcohol to drink when pregnant

Our response

Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, welcomed the new recommendations:

“This is a real step in the right direction on alcohol in the UK. We welcome the CMO’s recommendation as we’ve known for some time that regularly drinking alcohol increases your risk of developing breast cancer.

“There is unfortunately no ‘safe’ alcohol limit when it comes to increasing one’s cancer risk. It’s imperative that men and women fully understand the risks involved and that clear information about the alcohol content of all drinks is now provided.

"Importantly, while you cannot change some things that affect your breast cancer risk, such as getting older, alcohol is not only one of the most important factors but it is one you really can do something about.”

But I thought alcohol could be good for you?

Over the years, there has been much discussion about the potential benefits of alcohol for heart health.

The new guidelines found that these benefits only apply to women aged 55 and over, with the largest benefits seen when women limit their alcohol intake to five units (two glasses of wine) a week.

So although there could be heart health benefits for some, you still need to weigh up the risks of other health risks, such as cancer.

How much alcohol am I drinking?

In a survey by the Alcohol Health Alliance in 2014, it was shown that less than half of the British public are aware of the link between alcohol and cancer, and only one in three know that there is an increased risk of breast cancer.

Evidence suggests that all alcohol is linked with an increased risk of breast cancer – so the risk is the same whichever type of alcohol you drink.

It can be hard to keep track of exactly how much alcohol you are drinking, but there are several things to look out for:

  • The size of your drink
  • The alcohol content
  • The number of drinks you have

What does a weekly limit of 14 units look like?

To give you an idea, 14 units equals roughly one and a half bottles of wine or around six pints of average strength beer. If you’re drinking at home, you may want to measure out your drinks to help you keep track. 

how much alcohol is in my drink?

The recommended daily units have been removed from the guidelines, as it was thought that having both a daily limit and weekly limit could be confusing. However, this is still being considered and may be introduced when the guidelines are finalised in April.

Will avoiding alcohol prevent me from getting breast cancer?

It’s not yet possible to predict who will get breast cancer, and for women who have been diagnosed with the disease, it is not possible to say what caused it to develop. This is because there is no single cause of breast cancer – it results from a combination of our genes, the way we live our lives and the surrounding environment. So even those who don’t drink at all are still at risk of developing the disease.

However, limiting the amount of alcohol you drink, maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active are all ways you can reduce your risk of getting breast cancer and lower the chances of the disease developing. 

How can I reduce my risk?

It can be difficult to change parts of your lifestyle, but there are some simple ways to make these changes easier.

Within the new guidelines, there is some advice on how to minimise the short term health risks of alcohol. These include:

  • Limiting the amount of alcohol you drink on any one occasion
  • Drinking more slowly
  • Drinking with food
  • Alternating your alcoholic drinks with water

More information

Read more information about alcohol and breast cancer risk, or download our alcohol factsheet.

For more advice and helpful tips on how to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink, look at the NHS guide to ‘Understanding Alcohol.’