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Good Question: “What, In the World, Is a Standard Drink?”

Chalk another one up for drink variability.  The question was prompted in at least one media outlet (Eureka Alert) after the release of a new study that sought to compile “standard drink measures and low-risk consumption guidelines for all the countries in the world” that do so.  Not surprisingly, the authors found significant variation in both measures.

First, only about half of the 75 countries the authors identified that might define these measures actually do.   The “modal standard” they found did follow the World Health Organization’s drink definition of 10 grams of pure ethanol.  About half of the 37 countries that defined a standard drink use a 10-gram measure.  “But the variation was wide,” the authors found: from 8 grams (UK, Iceland, elsewhere) up to 20 grams (Austria).  The US is 14 grams, almost twice the UK level.  International researchers are constantly challenged to adjust their findings and language about “light” and “moderate” drinking from society to society because of these differences.  Then again, government “definitions” and actual pours/package sizes also vary significantly, as Beer Institute, many others and now the US Dietary Guidelines point out.


At the same time, “low risk guidance” (a loaded phrase in and of itself) also varies considerably across nations, “from 10-42 grams/day for women and 10-56 grams per day for men to 98-140 grams per week for women and 150-280 grams per week for men.”  Many countries have different guidelines for men and women.  Some do not.  A couple of the authors’ observations about these findings show just how fraught with confusion this issue of drink definition is (and has always been).


  • “Although the 10 grams of pure ethanol per standard drink definition is prevalent, assuming its universality would be an error as often as it would be correct.”       
  • Given the importance of “culture-specific traditions…it may be more sensible for public health officials to match the national standard drink definitions to prevalent drinking practices rather than attempt to teach the public an alien system.”  (All dinking is local.)
  • “Given the wide disparity in the definitions of low-risk drinking around the world, it seems unlikely that everyone is correct.  Indeed, one cannot even rule out the possibility that all 37 countries are in some sense wrong” (our emphasis), since there’s “no robust evidence” that populations change their habits based on government definitions/guidance.
  • Since most countries do not define a drink or offer low-risk guidance, and they vary so widely when they do, “we hope our compilation inspires more evaluation of whether such guidelines benefit public health, and if so, what strategies would increase the number of nations that develop and disseminate them.”  


It would appear that these debates, dialogues and disagreements are far from over.

Publishing Info

  • Year: 2016
  • Volume: 33
  • Issue #: 4
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