Describing alcohol consumption and alcohol related  
How should alcohol consumption be described?

Primary health care providers can describe the alcohol consumption of their patients either in terms of grams of alcohol consumed or in terms of standard drinks, where one standard drink in Europe commonly contains about 10g of absolute alcohol (Turner 1990). 


At a scientific level, reports of quantities of alcohol consumed should be expressed in grams of absolute alcohol, in order to facilitate international comparability.   


The term standard drink is used to simplify the measurement of alcohol consumption. Although some inaccuracy must be expected, its level of accuracy is good enough to recommend it as a method of recording alcohol consumption in a variety of settings like primary health care, accident and emergency departments and hospital in-patients. 


Even though using the term standard drink has advantages, there are also difficulties:   

  • The alcohol contents of drinks ranges enormously, from 1% to over   45%, which may easily lead to miscalculations;
  • The same kind of drink may be placed in many different types of containers, with different amounts of alcohol;
  • The same type of drink may differ in alcohol concentration, depending on where and how it is produced;
  • Standard drinks vary from country to country; and
  • In most countries the alcohol content of a standard drink has been reached through consensus, without previous scientific research.   

The use of standard drinks simplifies the assessment of alcohol consumption, and its systematic use in primary health care settings can be adopted. However, since there are country differences, the alcohol content of standard drinks should be defined in each country according to scientific research, and not only through consensus.   


The World Health Organization (Babor & Higgins-Biddle 2001) proposed that a standard drink is the equivalent of:   

  • 330 ml of beer at 5% strength
  • 140 ml of wine at 12% strength
  • 90 ml of fortified wine (e.g. sherry) at 18% strength
  • 70 ml of a liqueur of aperitif at 25% strength
  • 40 ml of spirits at 40% strength

Due to its specific gravity, one ml of alcohol contains 0.785g of alcohol, so the WHO definition of a standard drink is about 13g of alcohol. In Europe, standard drinks commonly contain about 10g of alcohol (Turner 1990).

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Last modified: 03/05/2006 | Published on: 29/06/2005 Top

 © 2008 PHEPA - Primary Health Care European Project on Alcohol