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Can drinking alcohol give you cancer?
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The British government is pushing back against the popular notion that drinking alcohol can be good for your health. Both the U.S. and the U.K. now say that you'll be healthier if you don't drink. - photo by Jennifer Graham
The U.S. government would prefer that Americans not drink alcohol, but this proscription got little attention when the Department of Agricultures new dietary guidelines were released in January.

Across the ocean, however, the United Kingdom is cracking down hard on alcohol consumption, saying there is a proven correlation between drinking and cancer risk, The Wall Street Journal has reported.

In January, the U.K. proposed new guidelines for drinking that challenge widely touted studies that say alcohol consumption red wine in particular has health benefits. Those claims are overblown and apply only to small groups of people, the U.K. now says.

For instance, studies suggest some coronary benefit for older women who drink a small amount regularly. But for everyone else, the benefits are outweighed by clear linkages between drinking and diseases like cancer, the chief medical officers of the U.K. found, Saabira Chaudhuri wrote for The Journal.

The U.K. report puts it even more bluntly, saying, "The risk of developing a range of illnesses (including, for example, cancers of the mouth, throat and breast) increases with any amount you drink on a regular basis."

Enraged alcohol makers in the U.K. are challenging the science behind the guidelines, even as the British government prepares to promote them starting next month. "The guidance ranks among the most conservative among 34 countries that make explicit recommendations about the alcohol intake, according to data from the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, a nonprofit funded by the alcohol industry," Chaudhuri wrote.

Despite their grim warnings, the guidelines still give British adults plenty of leeway when it comes to drinking. They advise both men and women to drink no more than 14 "units" or 112 grams of alcohol a week. That amounts to seven 5-ounce glasses of wine, 9.6 12-ounce beers, or eight mixed drinks with 1 ounces of 80-proof spirits with an alcohol content of 40 percent.

The previous guidelines didn't have a weekly limit but said men should have no more than four units per day and women no more than three. The new guidelines make no distinction between safe levels of drinking between men and women.

In comparison, the U.S. guidelines say American women should have no more than one drink per day, two for men, using the same portion sizes as the U.K. And it stresses "The Dietary Guidelines does not recommend that individuals who do not drink alcohol start drinking for any reason."

While both the U.K. and U.S. guidelines aim to urge citizens toward better health, the British report offered a gloomy assessment of how much influence its advice will have, saying, "There is little systemic evidence about the effectiveness of guidelines in changing health behaviors."
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