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International drinking guidelines lack consistency, Stanford researchers find

Wine glasses biggerFiguring out how much alcohol is safe to drink can be confusing even if you're not already a bit tipsy. Not only do you need to know the percent alcohol in your beverage of choice, you also need to be savvy about how much is considered to be a "standard drink." Then you need to keep track of how many drinks you imbibe each day or week.

Many countries have tried to help by publishing recommended guidelines for "low-risk drinking." But Stanford researchers have found that these parameters, as well as the amount of ethanol in a standard drink, vary widely. This is confusing to the public, as well as to researchers wishing to study international patterns of alcohol consumption.

The researchers published their findings today in the journal Addiction.

Stanford psychiatrist and addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, explained more in our release:

There’s a substantial chance for misunderstanding. A study of the health effects of low-risk drinking in France could be misinterpreted by researchers in the United States who may use a different definition of drinking levels. Inconsistent guidelines are also likely to increase skepticism among the public about their accuracy. It is not possible that every country is correct; maybe they are all wrong.

Humphreys and co-author psychiatric medicine resident Agnes Kalinowski, MD, PhD, compared guidelines and the alcohol content of a standard drink in 37 countries around the world. They found big disparities:

They found that, although the World Health Organization defines a standard drink as one containing 10 grams of alcohol, most countries have their own ideas. A standard drink in Austria, for example, contains 20 grams of alcohol, while those in Iceland and the United Kingdom contain 8 grams. The United States splits the difference, with a standard drink of 14 grams of alcohol, which is roughly the amount in a 12 ounce bottle of beer or a 5 ounce glass of wine. [...]

Many countries also provide different definitions of low-risk drinking — or the amount of alcohol that can be consumed per day or week without experiencing adverse health effects. Men and women in Australia are told they should drink no more than 20 grams each day; American women are allotted 42 grams per day but no more than 98 grams per week. In contrast, men in the United States are told they can safely drink 56 grams per day and up to 196 per week. The upper weekly limit for men in Poland is substantially higher, at 280 grams per week.

Cultural differences among countries could account for some of the differences, the researchers say. But the variation also reflects the fact that more research needs to be done to determine what constitutes low-risk drinking.

Previously: A discussion of the history and effectiveness of Alcoholics AnonymousAlcoholism: Not just a man’s problem and New money for opioid abuse welcomed to help uninsured, says Stanford’s Keith Humphreys
Photo by Susanne Nilsson

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