On Friday morning a press release from the Department of Health, which handles press for the four CMOs, said that guideline maximum weekly consumption for men had dropped from 21 to 14 units, the same level as for women.
It also warned that "drinking any level of alcohol increases the risk of a range of cancers", and said that pregnant women should not drink at all – previous advice was for expectant mothers to limit themselves to no more than one or two units once or twice per week.
The announcement featured in all national newspapers, appearing on the front pages of both The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, while others such as the Daily Mail and The Times also dedicated a significant amount of space to the news, and the hashtag #alcoholguidelines ranked second on the UK trending topics on Twitter. Chief medical officer for England Sally Davies was also interviewed on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, and the news was the top story on various BBC radio stations.
Rupert Ponsonby, director of drink and food PR agency R&R Teamwork, pointed out that the UK recommendation was far lower than the US’ 24.5 units per week, France’s 26, Italy’s 31.5 and Spain’s 35.
He said: "We used to be told not to eat butter, and to spread margarine; now the opposite. They used to denigrate fat; but now we have good fats and bad fats – though no-one knows how to tell one from the other. All this leaves consumers grasping for a modicum of truth, or of reality. So what I was hoping for from this guideline was balance and clarity. And I haven’t got it."
He criticised what he called the 'Nanny knows best' tone of the announcement, the lack of attention paid to the different effects of alcohol on people of different ethnicities, and said it ignored the health and social benefits of alcohol.
Ponsonby also said he feared the announcement was "one more nail in the coffin of the great British pub. A rusty, bent nail at that".
Liam Keogh, founder of Palm PR and a mentee on the PRCA/PRWeek Fast Track in PR mentoring scheme, said: "The media are currently saturated with news stories detailing the negative health implications of consuming certain foods. As these can often be contradictory, they don’t always have the effect on consumer behaviour that might be expected.
"It takes a lot of time and effort to alter ingrained buying patterns and lifestyles so one report, even if it is delivered with huge fanfare, doesn’t always have the revolutionary impact it might suggest it will. Alcohol brands should therefore be extremely considered when responding to these developments."
He also said that health brands and healthier alcoholic products could capitalise on the news, adding: "Brands could capitalise by adding products infused with these ingredients to their ranges and marketing should focus on publicising the positive elements of the products if the alcohol content is set to become a detraction."
PRWeek contacted several supermarkets and retailers to ask about the news, all of which directed reports to contact the British Retail Consortium. The membership body released the following statement: "Retail was the first industry to adopt the Department of Health alcohol label, which is now on all own-brand products in the major supermarkets and gives unit information and reinforces the responsible drinking limits to help consumers.
"BRC members have also initiated and supported a number of initiatives to help improve the way alcohol is sold and enjoyed. Following the publication of the new guidelines today, we are interested to see how they will be implemented and what this will involve."
The Department of Health declined to further elaborate on how it was handling the news and promoting the new guidelines.
Additional reporting by Sagal Mohammed