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Drinking Guidelines

UK Chief Medical Officers' Alcohol Guidelines Review

Summary of the new guidelines

The UK Chief Medical Officers considered and accepted the advice of the expert group and agreed on three main recommendations:

  • A weekly guideline on regular drinking

  • Advice on single episodes of drinking

  • A guideline on pregnancy and drinking

On regular drinking
Weekly drinking guideline
This applies to adults who drink regularly or frequently i.e most weeks.

The Chief Medical Officers’ guideline for both men and women is that:

  • To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis.

  • If you regularly drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread your drinking evenly over 3 or more days. If you have one or two heavy drinking episodes a week, you increase your risks of death from long term illnesses and from accidents and injuries.

  • The risk of developing a range of health problems (including strokes as well as cancers of the mouth, throat and breast) increases the more you drink on a regular basis.

  • If you wish to cut down the amount you drink, a good way to help achieve this is to have several drink-free days each week

On single ocassion drinking episodes

This applies for drinking on any single occasion (not regular drinking, which is covered by the weekly guideline.)

The Chief Medical Officers advice for men and women who wish to keep their short term health risks from  single ocassion drinking episodes to a low level is to reduce them by:

  • Limiting the total amount of alcohol you drink on any single occasion;

  • Drinking more slowly, drinking with food, and alternating with water;

  • Planning ahead to avoid problems e.g. by making sure you can get home safely or that you have people you trust with you.

As you will know, the sorts of things that are more likely to happen if you don’t understand and judge correctly the risks of drinking too much on a single ocassion can include:

  • accidents resulting in injury (causing death in some cases)'
  • misjudging risky situations, and
  • losing self-control (e.g. engaging in unprotected sex).

Some groups of people are likely to be affected by alcohol and should be more careful of their level of drinking on any one occasion for example those at risk of falls, those on medication which may interact with alcohol or where it may exacerbate pre-exisiting physical or mental health problems.

If you are a regular weekly drinker and you wish to keep both your short and long-term health risks from drinking low, this single episode drinking advice is also relevant for you.

On average there are 670 hospital stays and 22 deaths a week due to alcohol misuse.  It is estimated that 36,000 - 51,000 children live with a parent with an alcohol problem.

On pregnancy and drinking

The Chief Medical Officers’ guideline is that:

  • If you are pregnant or think you could become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to your baby to a minimum.

  • Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby, with the more you drink the greater the risk.

The risk of harm to the baby is likely to be low ifyou have drunk only small amounts of alcohol before you knew you were pregnant or during pregnancy.

If you find out you are pregnant after you have drunk alcohol during early pregnancy, you should avoid further drinking.  You should be aware that it is unlikely in most cases that their baby has been affected. If you are worried about alcohol use during pregnancy do talk to your doctor or midwife.

What's in a unit?

A unit equals 10ml of pure alcohol. That is how much the body can process in an hour.

Why does it matter?

Alcohol is so widely used that people sometimes forget the harm it can cause to physical and mental health.  There is clear evidence that as alcohol use increases so does the risk of a range of physical and mental health harms.  Alcohol misuse has been shown to damage the brain and nervous system, affect the immune system, harm bones, skin and muscles, cause fertility problems and impair fetal development.  In the short term, it can result in accidental injury or alcohol poisoning. In the long term, it can lead to a range of alcohol related conditions, including cancer, liver cirrhosis and high blood pressure, and even to death. Taken together this represents a significant risk to health.

If you are looking to find out more or reduce the amount you are drinking, a great place to start is the Drinkaware website.

Labelling of alcohol products

The Scottish Government believes people have a right to accurate information and clear advice about alcohol and its health risks and that it has a responsibility to ensure this information is provided for the public in an open and clear way, so they can make informed choices about when and how much they drink and help to reduce alcohol-related health harms.  The Department of Health has published guidance on communicating the UK Chief Medical Officers’ alcohol guidelines which we endorse.  It sets out the core elements of the guidelines that we would wish to see communicated to the public