Alcohol Use Disorders (121) Understanding standard drinks/units (2)

4 March, 2024

Dear Joel,

Many thanks for your message about people's understanding of standard drinks/units.

I was interested to see a paper about this:

CITATION: Drug Alcohol Rev. 2012 Mar; 31(2): 200–205.

Published online 2011 Nov 3. doi: 10.1111/j.1465-3362.2011.00374.x

Understanding standard drinks and drinking guidelines

William C. Kerr, Ph.D., Senior Scientist and Tim Stockwell, Ph.D., Scientist


Introduction and Aims: For consumers to follow drinking guidelines and limit their risk of negative consequences they need to track their ethanol consumption. This paper reviews published research on the ability of consumers to utilise information about the alcohol content of beverages when expressed in different forms e.g. in standard drinks or units versus percentage alcohol content.

Design and Methods: A review of the literature on standard drink definitions and consumer understanding of these, actual drink pouring, use of standard drinks in guidelines and consumer understanding and use of these.

Results: Standard drink definitions vary across countries and typically contain less alcohol than actual drinks. Drinkers have difficulty defining and pouring standard drinks with over-pouring being the norm such that intake volume is typically underestimated. Drinkers have difficulty using percentage alcohol by volume and pour size information in calculating intake but can effectively utilise standard drink labeling to track intake.

Discussion and Conclusions: Standard drink labeling is an effective but little used strategy for enabling drinkers to track their alcohol intake and potentially conform to safe or low risk drinking guidelines.

COMMENT (NPW): According to the full text, 'Many countries have a national standard drink or unit with alcohol contents ranging from 8 to 23.5 grams of ethanol'. This is almost a 3-fold difference aomng different countries. This can only add to everyone's confusion. Ideally a standard drink or unit should be truly standard - the same across countries. The paper says a little about why some countries choose different amounts, but it does seem surprising that the international health community has not reached a consensus.

Best wishes, Neil

HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of HIFA (Healthcare Information For All), a global health community that brings all stakeholders together around the shared goal of universal access to reliable healthcare information. HIFA has 20,000 members in 180 countries, interacting in four languages and representing all parts of the global evidence ecosystem. HIFA is administered by Global Healthcare Information Network, a UK-based nonprofit in official relations with the World Health Organization. Email: