Victory for Public Health: New U.S. Guidelines on Alcohol Consumption Drop Positive Spin on Drinking
On May 27, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released the updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans. We applaud the revisions in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines on alcohol consumption. The new edition provides a far more objective, comprehensive, and specific summary of the relative risks and benefits of consuming alcoholic beverages than the previous (1995) version.
Without encouraging drinking, the Guidelines acknowledge that small amounts of alcohol -- up to one per day for women and two per day for men -- consumed by most consumers who choose to drink may not be harmful. The Guidelines catalogue the many and varied risks of drinking above the more restrictively defined "moderate" standard and identify those classes of consumers who should not drink at all. In citing a potential benefit of modest alcohol consumption on coronary heart disease (CHD) risk, the Guidelines -- quite in contrast to the 1995 edition -- specify that the benefit is essentially limited to older men and women, those at highest risk for the disease. The Guidelines wisely acknowledge that younger people, who have a low risk of CHD, have little if anything to gain -- and perhaps much to lose -- by drinking.
For the first time, and in keeping with recent epidemiologic evidence, The Guidelines include a specific mention that alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer, a matter of considerable concern to women. The Ninth Report to Congress of the National Toxicology Program, which was released earlier this month, listed alcoholic beverages as a "known human carcinogen," and specifically identified alcohol as a likely cause of breast cancer, as well as many other cancers.
Significantly, the new Guidelines advise "women who may become pregnant" to avoid alcohol to reduce the risk of birth defects; this language is an expansion of an earlier warning to "women who are trying to conceive," and reflects the reality that many women do not always plan pregnancies.
Lastly, the current text omits previous gratuitous language about the use of alcohol to enhance the enjoyment of meals. The same statement could have been included in reference to salt, sugar, and fat, and the Advisory Committee opted to eliminate an obvious inconsistency with other text in the Guidelines.
The new Guidelines provide balanced, objective
summary information on alcohol consumption. Fortunately, they clearly discourage drinking
above moderate levels (one drink per day for women, two for men) and can no longer be
interpreted as official encouragement of drinking for health reasons.
Comparison Between the U.S. Guidelines on Alcohol Consumption, 1995 & 2000
*The Dietary Guidelines for Americans may be accessed at http://www.nalusda.gov/fnic/dga/. Further information on the Guidelines is also available at the Department of Health and Human Services (http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/) or the Department of Agriculture (http://www.ars.usda.gov/dgac/).
May 31, 2000