OFFICIAL alcohol guidelines that were "plucked out of the air" wrongly suggest we can drink almost daily with no ill effects, doctors have said.
They have been set too high and fail to take into account evidence that shows drinking only modest amounts raises the risk of cancer and other diseases, they say.
The issue is investigated in a three-part 'You And Yours' documentary into British government guidelines on alcohol, diet and exercise starting today on BBC Radio 4.
The current guidelines recommend that men should limit themselves to "three to four units" a day, which the National Health Service likens to "not much more than a pint of strong lager, beer or cider".
Women should not regularly drink more than "two to three units" a day, equivalent to "no more than a standard 175ml glass of wine".
Research published last year suggests consumption should be much lower – perhaps only a quarter of a pint of beer daily.
Dr Michael Mosley's research for the documentary found the guidelines were based on limited data on the harmful effects of low to moderate level drinking. They were formulated in 1987 by a Royal College of Physicians working party.
In 2007, Richard Smith, one of the members of the group and a former editor of the 'British Medical Journal', said it could not say what a safe limit was because of this lack of data.
"Those limits were really plucked out of the air," he said. "They were not based on any firm evidence at all."
Dr Mosley said the British government had "presented these guidelines as if they are about health, but they are not".
"They are more about behaviour, trying to stop you going out and crashing the car or fighting," he said.
A Harvard University study, published in the 'Journal of the American Medical Association' in 2011, found that women who drank only four small glasses of wine a week – about five units – increased their risk of developing breast cancer by 15pc compared with non-drinkers.
Another 2011 study estimated that alcohol caused 13,000 cancers a year, including 6,000 of the mouth and throat, 3,000 bowel cancer cases and 2,500 cases of breast cancer.