No level of regular drinking is completely safe, the UK's medical experts have warned. Any amount of alcohol consumption can raise the risk of cancer, and men have been advised to cap their intake to no more than 14 units a week – the same as women – according to the first new drinking guidelines in two decades from the country's chief medical officers.

Both men and women have been advised to have booze-free days in the week and spread their consumption of alcohol over two or three days, rather than drink heavily in one session. The maximum recommended amount of alcohol for men was previously set at 21 units. Fourteen units translates to around one and a half bottles of wine, or six to seven pints of beer. "It means you can safely share one bottle of wine with your partner on a Friday night, another on Saturday, and maybe one for Sunday lunch," Nick Sheron, a liver specialist at Southampton University told New Scientist.

Cancer risks

According to the research – published alongside the Chief Medical Officer's (CMO) advice – teetotal women have a 10.9% risk of getting breast cancer, rising to 12.6% if they consume up to 14 units of alcohol per week. This increases to 15.3% if they drink between 14 and 35 units per week.

Meanwhile, male teetotalers have a 0.6% chance of getting oesophageal cancer, but this doubles to 1.3% if they consume up to 14 units per week. "Everyone thinks alcohol equals liver disease, but now they're saying alcohol equals cancer, which throws a new boomerang into the mix," Kevin Moore, a liver specialist at London's Royal Free Hospital said.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies said: "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."

She added: "What we are aiming to do with these guidelines is give the public the latest and most up- to-date scientific information so that they can make informed decisions about their own drinking and the level of risk they are prepared to take."

Nanny state tactics

Last night (7 January), officials faced criticism for "nanny state interventions" after including advice, such as drinking with water, alternating alcohol with water, drinking more slowly, avoiding ladders while drinking and "risky places and activities".

"Alcohol consumption has been falling for a decade," Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs told the Telegraph. "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."

He added: "People deserve to get honest and accurate health advice from the Chief Medical Officer, not scaremongering."

Liverpool University's Professor Matt Field said the advice will help shape people's choices and added that risk is involved in many of our daily activities. "Any amount of alcohol consumption carries some risk," the Professor of Addiction said. "However, it is important to bear in mind that most activities that people undertake on a daily basis - e.g. driving to work - carry some risk, and people need to make informed choices about the level of risk that they are prepared to accept."