How “Standard Drinks” Differ Around The World Depending On Size, Alcohol, And Occasion
By Lara Rutherford-Morrison
April 14, 2016
Do your drinking habits fall within the boundaries of “low-risk alcohol consumption”? According to researchers based in California, the answer might depend on where you live. A study recently published in the journal Addiction found that the definition of a “standard drink” varies from country to country. Most countries don’t have set drinking standards at all, and the ones that do often have wildly different ideas about how much is “too much.”
The researchers, Agnieszka Kalinowski and Keith Humphreys, investigated 75 different world nations that might be reasonably expected to have some kind of official policy about what constitutes a standard drink and how much alcohol is safe for people to consume. Only 37 — fewer than half — had any such guidelines in place, and their ideas of “standard” were, in fact, not standard at all: Definitions of a standard alcoholic beverage varied by a whopping 250 percent. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a standard drink as 10 grams of pure ethanol, but, of the 37 countries that had standardized drink guidelines, only half were consistent with the WHO’s definition.
In the United States, a standard drink is 14 grams of ethanol. According to the National Institutes of Health, that’s equivalent to approximately 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or an ounce and a half of a distilled spirit like gin or vodka. But if you go to the UK, the standard drink is only 8 grams of ethanol — more than 42 percent less than on this side of the pond. The standard drink in Austria, in contrast, is much stronger than those you get stateside; at 20 grams of ethanol, it’s twice as alcoholic as the WHO’s standard and 43 percent higher than the U.S. standard.
There’s also disagreement from country to country about what qualifies as “low-risk consumption.” The WHO recommends that men and women don’t consume more than two standard drinks a day (which, by the WHO’s definition of “standard,” means no more than 20 grams of ethanol per day). U.S. health officials recommend that women have no more than three drinks a day (with a max of seven per week), and men have no more than 4 drinks per day (with a max of 14 per week). At first glance, the UK’s guidelines sound fairly similar — recommending that women don’t exceed two to three drinks a day and men don’t exceed three to four — but here’s where things get confusing: Although the United States and the UK both have similar guidelines for the total number of drinks allowed for low risk consumption, because their standard drink sizes vary significantly, the amount of alcohol they actually recommend is very different. A woman in the UK, for example, can drink a maximum of 24 grams of ethanol before going beyond the UK guideline — the equivalent of less than two U.S. drinks. If that same woman wanted to party in the United States, she could drink almost double what she was allowed in the UK before going beyond U.S. health recommendations. And if she went to Canada, there would be a different standard, and another in Australia, and another in Singapore, and another in Italy, and another in India, and on and on and on. Whew!
If all of that confusion weren’t enough, the study’s authors point out that there are even more variations of how countries approach alcohol. Four countries (Australia, Grenada, Portugal, and South Africa), don’t distinguish between men and women in their guidelines for low-risk alcohol consumption, and, in nine (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Fiji, France, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, and the UK), there are guidelines that let drinkers indulge more on special occasions.
Sticking to recommended health guidelines when drinking is an important factor in avoiding health risks associated with alcohol, but these discrepancies show that there isn’t much consensus about what those guidelines should actually be. Co-author Keith Humphreys suggested in a press statement that if you don’t like your home’s drinking guidelines, you can always move: “If you think your country should have a different definition of a standard drink or low-risk drinking, take heart — there’s probably another country that agrees with you.”