New guidelines released this morning by the NHMRC give Australians advice on how much alcohol they can drink while remaining at low risk of suffering diseases or injury as a result of their drinking.

The original draft guidelines attracted widespread interest — much of it supportive, but some highly critical — following their release for public comment in 2007.

Many of the critics, it’s been clear, may have failed to understand the rationale behind their development.

So, for the record, here’s what the Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol, are: an attempt to provide Australians with enough information so that they can make an informed decision about their drinking, based on an understanding that the associated risks increase as consumption increases.

And here’s what the guidelines are not: they are not an attempt by the “nanny state” or wowsers or do-gooders to dictate how much people should drink or to set upper limits for everyone.

The core advice of the guidelines remains largely unchanged from the draft version.

This is that:

  • men and women who regularly have more than two standard drinks per day are increasing their risk of health problems, accidents and injuries. The more they drink, the greater the risk, especially for women. Those who drink at or below the guideline levels will reduce their lifetime risk of dying from an alcohol-related disease or injury to less than one in 100;
  • not drinking is the safest option for children and adolescents under 18; and
  • not drinking is the safest option for women who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy or who are breast-feeding.

The guidelines also are likely to single out some groups as being at increased risk from drinking, including youth, people with a family history of alcohol-related problems, people with mental health problems, and those taking medications.

Some public health experts have argued that the guidelines are unrealistic and likely to be ignored because they so far out of touch with the reality of many peoples’ drinking habits.

My response is that actually a majority of Australians already recognise that the risks and levels set out in the guidelines make a lot of sense, and that all Australians have the right to know the facts about the risks associated with drinking, and then make their own informed decisions about what they choose to do.

No one is trying to kill off socialising, but there’s a valid argument that many people need to rethink how many drinks they’re having and just monitor more carefully what they’re doing — for not only their own health, but also that of their families and communities.

Unsafe drinking doesn’t only harm the drinker — many other people also pay a price.

Professor Currie is an addiction medicine specialist at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne and the University of Melbourne. He chaired the committee which reviewed the scientific evidence about the health effects of alcohol for the National Health and Medical Research Council.