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LONDON (Reuters) - Britons should drink less because any alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer and other diseases, government health chiefs said in new guidelines that were immediately denounced by critics as "nanny state" scaremongering.
With alcohol rated as one of Britain's biggest health problems and binge-drinking revellers causing mayhem in city centres every weekend, health chiefs said no level of drinking could be considered safe.
People should now drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, the equivalent of 6 pints of beer or 7 glasses of wine, to reduce the risk of illness. Previous guidelines issued 20 years ago recommended no more than 21 units for men and 14 for women.
"Drinking any level of alcohol regularly carries a health risk for anyone, but if men and women limit their intake to no more than 14 units a week it keeps the risk of illness like cancer and liver disease low," said Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England.
Concerns over binge drinking were fuelled by images from New Year's Eve celebrations showing drunken revellers semi-comatose on streets or fighting with fellow partygoers and police.
One picture taken in Manchester which showed police arresting a suspect with a man in the background lying prostrate in the road reaching for a bottle of beer went viral on social media, with suggestions it had similarities to paintings by the likes of William Hogarth and Italian master Caravaggio.
In a country where drinking has long permeated social life, alcohol was responsible for 1.2 million hospital admissions in 2012 with 8,416 alcohol-related deaths in 2013. It has been linked to heightened risk of liver damage, cancer, stroke and heart conditions.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who often entertains visiting leaders in a local pub, considered the possibility of minimum alcohol prices to cut down excessive drinking but the government rejected the plan in 2013, saying there was not enough evidence it would be effective.
The new government advice, which health chiefs said was based on the latest firm scientific evidence, recommends people have several drink-free days a week and do not consume the 14 weekly units in one session.
It also says pregnant women should drink no alcohol at all, another revision from the previous guidelines which suggested a small amount was safe.
The British recommendations are similar to those suggested by U.S. health officials in new advice issued on Thursday but stricter than the guidance from many other European countries.
The U.S. government's 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans state alcohol should be consumed in moderation -- up to one drink per day for women and up to two per day for men.
In France and Italy, the guidance is for less than three drinks a day, in Spain the recommendation is less than four, while Sweden echoes the latest British limit of less than 14 drinks a week with just nine for women.
The Portman Group, which represents drinks manufacturers, said Britain was breaking with international practice by suggesting the same consumption for men as women.
"It also means that UK men are now being advised to drink significantly less than their European counterparts," Portman Group Chief Executive Henry Ashworth said.
However, critics said the guidance was an over-reaction and figures showed alcohol consumption in Britain had been falling. Official statistics last February revealed more than one in five adults said they were teetotal and frequent drinking by the young had fallen considerably.
Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, accused the health chiefs of ignoring evidence which showed moderate drinking reduced the risk of heart disease and the overall risk of death.
"The change to the guidelines will turn hundreds of thousands of people into 'hazardous drinkers' overnight thereby reviving the moral panic about drinking in Britain and opening the door to yet more nanny state interventions," Snowdon said.
"People deserve to get honest and accurate health advice from the Chief Medical Officer, not scaremongering."
Others suggested people would ignore the advice anyway.
"We all know there is a big problem with excessive alcohol consumption in this country, there's a problem with a binge-drinking mentality," said Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU UKIP party who is often pictured in a pub with a pint of beer.
"But frankly if we choose to enjoy a few drinks four or five nights a week after a hard day at work, whether it slightly shortens our lives or not, so what," he told LBC radio.
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Giles Elgood