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Making sense of alcohol consumption guidelines



A series of studies coordinated by Dr Richard de Visser is examining how governments, health professionals, and individual make sense of and use alcohol consumption guidelines. Such research is important because the Government is currently reviewing its drinking guidelines for the first time in 15 years.

pouring a glass of wine Agreed international guidelines would make it easier for people living in a globalised world to develop and use transferable skills for monitoring and regulating their alcohol consumption. However, a comparison of drinking guidelines around the world conducted as part of Nina Furtwængler’s DPhil research under Dr de Visser’s supervision was published in February 2013 in Drug and Alcohol Review. The study examined government alcohol consumption guidelines in 57 countries, including all 27 European Member States, and found a remarkable lack of agreement about what constitutes harmful or excessive alcohol consumption on a daily basis or weekly basis. Key findings were:

  • Many countries do not have readily accessible guidelines (including 8 of the 27 EU member States).
  • Some countries do not define standard drinks, but offer general guidance encouraging moderate alcohol consumption and/or abstinence in certain circumstances
  • The alcohol content of a “unit” or “standard drink” ranges from 8g in the UK  to 14g in Slovakia and the USA.
  • There is no consensus as to whether drinkers should have alcohol-free days every week
  • There is no consensus as to whether it is safe for women to drink as much as men

It is important to have specific guidelines, because these are likely to be more useful for individuals and health professionals than vague advice to “drink moderately”.

However, an earlier study conducted by Dr de Visser revealed that knowledge of unit-based guidelines may not be enough to motivate people to drink moderately. Other as-yet unpublished data from Ms Furtwængler’s DPhil research indicate that people tend not to use unit-based guidelines to monitor their alcohol consumption.

Despite these caveats, it is important for people who do want to adhere to recommendations to drink responsibly that there are internationally agreed standard definitions of alcohol units and consumption guidelines. Dr de Visser’s planned future research will determine whether giving people personalised feedback on their actual alcohol intake will help them calibrate their intake with government guidelines and motivate them to drink moderately.