Last Friday, the UK government announced its revised alcohol consumption guidelines. While getting sloshed every night has never been officially recommended, the UK's chief medical officers now explicitly advise against daily drinking, suggesting that both men and women drink no more than 14 units a week, according to the BBC. That's the equivalent of about seven glasses of wine, so you might as well go ahead and cancel your evening plans now.
This recent change is also a departure from the previous recommendation that women should drink less than men. "The new guidelines recognize that while long-term alcohol-health risks are generally higher for women than men, men face much higher risks of acute harm (e.g. injury) on single drinking occasions. Therefore, it has been decided to set the lower-risk level at the same amount for both," an explainer for the new health guidelines says. The updated guidelines also warn that there is no "safe" level of alcohol consumption for anyone.
But across other European countries, men are still "allowed" to consume more alcohol than women, according to another report by the BBC. Ditto for the US, where the nutritional guidelines limit women to one drink per day and men to two drinks per day.
Health officials say that this is because the link between cancer and alcohol consumption is much higher for women. A publication by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism titled Alcohol: A Women's Health Issue explains that "a woman's brain and other organs are exposed to more alcohol and to more of the toxic byproducts that result when the body breaks down and eliminates alcohol" based on the assumption that women weigh less than men and have less water in their bodies to disperse the alcohol. The same pamphlet says that "research suggests that as little as one drink per day can slightly raise the risk of breast cancer in some women."
(It's also worth noting that Alcohol: A Women's Health Issue, published in 2003 and revised just last year, uses questionable language about alcohol and sexual assault, listing sexual assault as one of the "consequences" of drinking: "In general, when a woman drinks to excess she is more likely to be a target of violence or sexual assault.")
When women consume alcohol, are they really at a greater risk than men? Unfortunately, research confirms it. An independent study published last summer found that women in the US who enjoy a drink a day put themselves at a higher risk for breast cancer, whereas men who consume a drink a day only slightly increased their risk for most types of cancer. A previous study in the UK from 2009 also established a connection between moderate alcohol consumption and increased cancer risk in women.
"US guidelines don't advise men to drink more than women, but the recommended limits are set at different levels for a variety of reasons," George F. Koob, PhD, Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told Broadly via email. One of which, he said, is because "women are more susceptible than men to a variety of the deleterious health effects of alcohol, including liver inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers."
This is male privilege at work, folks.