People should drink just a half unit of alcohol daily in order to cut the number of deaths from cancer, liver disease and other conditions linked to drinking, health experts are urging.
The government's safe drinking guidelines should be revised downwards to make the recommended limits much closer to half a unit – the equivalent of barely a quarter of a pint of lager – they say.
Current official advice is that women should drink no more than two or three units of alcohol a day up to a maximum of 14 units a week and men no more than three or four units daily and no more than 21 units weekly, though that is being reviewed and may be changed.
But the half-unit suggestion, made in a new study in the medical journal BMJ Open, sparked claims that the idea is "extreme" and will be disregarded as unrealistic.
Peter Scarborough and his three co-authors – researchers in the department of public health at Oxford University – said: "The optimum level of reduced chronic disease mortality in England would be achieved at an average alcohol consumption level of around five grammes a day, which should be taken into account in the formulation of health guidance.
"It is likely that government recommendations would need to be set at a much lower level than the current 'low-risk' drinking guidelines in order to achieve this level."
One unit is measured as 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. That equals one 25ml single measure of whisky (ABV 40%), one third of a pint of beer (ABV 5-6%) or half a standard (175ml) glass of red wine (ABV 12%).
Getting average intake down to a half unit daily could save 4,600 lives a year in England, the study found. Most of that would come from lower death rates from cancer and cirrhosis of the liver.
About 171,000 people a year die from 11 conditions related to alcohol, which also include stroke, diabetes and epilepsy.
"With any health advice, it is important that it is realistic and allows people to behave sensibly when enjoying a drink, keeping any risk low while also reflecting the reality of people's lifestyles, said Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association. "Extreme advice could backfire, as it would be far more likely to be ignored by drinkers."
Henry Ashworth, chief executive of the Portman Group, a social responsibility body funded by the drinks industry, said that "78% of people in the UK drink within recommended low risk guidelines, as set by the chief medical officers".
He added: "Drastically cutting everyone's consumption to half a unit a day – that is, one large glass of wine a week – is not the way to reduce harms in the small group who misuse alcohol and need specific and targeted help."
Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer in England, is currently reviewing the alcohol guidelines.
The Commons science and technology select committee recently urged the government to include a recommendation that people remain drink-free for at least two days a week in any updated guidance.
Even Alcohol Concern, which represents alcohol projects across the UK, rejected the half-unit idea. "Although the findings of this study will be valuable for the Department of Health working group currently reviewing the drinking recommendations, the focus of the guidelines must be to gain the maximum acceptance by the drinking public, and to offer a realistic way of reducing the risks associated with drinking," a spokesman said.
A Department of Health spokesman said Davies "will review the evidence on alcohol and health risks including whether advice is needed on the maximum amount of alcohol that can be drunk in one session".
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