The Collison Newsletter September 2012


              WHAT  IS  A  STANDARD DRINK?*

                      Guidelines for Alcohol Intake  

A standard drink is any drink that contains a specified amount of pure alcohol (ethanol).


The standard drink is used to quantify alcohol intake. It is a unit of measurement. It measures a particular amount of alcohol and hence is a measure of the amount of alcohol consumed. One standard drink always contains the same amount of alcohol regardless of the container size or the type of alcohol beverage.

The Amount of Alcohol in a Standard Drink Varies Significantly from Country to Country 

Some countries define a standard drink as a number of grams of alcohol, while others define it as a number of ml of alcohol.


In Australia, a standard drink is any drink containing 10 grams of (pure) alcohol.


A standard drink in the United Kingdom is any drink containing 10 ml of alcohol (7.9 grams).


In my book How to Live to 100+ Years, when referring to the amount of alcohol that can be consumed without deleterious health effects, I used the UK measure: "One standard drink is 10ml of alcohol" (page 120). Using the Australian measure of 10 grams allows a somewhat higher intake of alcohol, when a specified number of standard drinks are recommended!


The following table (from demonstrates the significant differences across countries in their official definition of “a standard drink”. Note that:

1 gram of alcohol = 1.27 ml of alcohol.

1 ml of alcohol = 0.789 gram of alcohol.

CountryMass  (grams)Volume  (ml)
Australia 1012.7
New Zealand1012.7

As a result of the different measures in different countries, the number of standard drinks in an identical beverage can be quite different.


For example, 500 ml of beer, with an alcohol content of 5% by volume (ABV), contains 25 ml of alcohol.

  • In Australia this would be 2 standard drinks.
  • In Austria, this would be 3.2 standard drinks.
  • In UK, this would be 2.5 standard drinks.
  • In Hungary, this would be 1.2 standard drinks.
  • In USA, this would be 1.4 standard drinks.
  • In Japan, this would be 1.0 standard drink.
The Formula for Calculating Standard Drinks in Australia 



The Number of Standard Drinks =

Volume of container in litres X % alcohol by volume (ml/100ml) X 0.789


For example, one stubbie (375ml) of full strength beer (5% alcohol by volume):

0.375 X 5 X 0.789 = 1.5 (1.479). i.e. one and a half standard drinks.


In Australia, the number of standard drinks in alcoholic beverages is always shown on the label of the container.

Counting Standard Drinks 

Counting standard drinks is simply a matter of adding numbers. For example (using the Australian definition), if a person has one nip of spirits and two average (150ml) glasses of wine (12.5%ABV), 4 standard drinks (1 + 1.5 + 1.5) would have been consumed.


Counting glasses, bottles or cans of alcoholic drinks can be misleading because they can contain varying amounts of alcohol.

Why Count? 

The main reason people count their drinks, using 'standard drinks', is to ensure that the risk levels set out by various authorities and authors are not exceeded. The low risk levels define the number of standard drinks that can be drunk before the  threat to a person's health and social well-being moves up into the 'risky' or 'high risk' category.

Alcohol and Health 

That alcohol consumed in excess has adverse effects on the human body is well-known and unquestioned, and these adverse and undesirable effects do not need to be detailed here.


It is universally recommended that the intake of alcohol should be kept to a minimum.


Published evidence has shown that up to seven standard drinks per week can have a positive health benefit.


In 2007 the World Cancer Research Fund, in association with the American Institute of Cancer Research, published a 537 page report titled "Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective" (see my March 2008 newsletter Prevention of Cancer). In their report, there are 10 recommendations, and recommendation number 6 deals with alcohol:

Recommendation 6: Limit alcoholic drinks.

Public Health Goal:

Proportion of the population drinking more than the recommended limits to be reduced by one third every 10 years.

Personal Recommendation:

If alcoholic drinks are consumed, limit consumption to no more than two [standard] drinks a day for men and one [standard] drink for women.


The evidence on cancer justifies a recommendation not to drink alcoholic drinks. Other evidence shows that modest amounts of alcoholic drinks are likely to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

The message of this recommendation is either not to drink alcohol at all, or to keep the consumption to a minimum: for men 14 standard drinks per week, and for women 7 standard drinks.

Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol gives a 179 page report, with guidelines by way of summary.


Guideline 1: Reducing the risk of alcohol-related harm over a lifetime.


The lifetime risk of harm from drinking alcohol increases with the amount consumed. For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.


Guideline 2: Reducing the risk of injury on a single occasion of drinking.


On a single occasion of drinking, the risk of alcohol-related injury increases with the amount consumed. For healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion.


Each drinking occasion also contributes to the lifetime risk of alcohol-related harm.


Guideline 3 is for children and young people under 18 years of age.


For children and young people under 18 years of age, not drinking alcohol is the safest option.


Guideline 4 is for pregnancy and breastfeeding.


Maternal alcohol consumption can harm the developing foetus or breastfeeding baby. Not drinking alcohol is the safest option.

Recommendation for Alcohol Intake in Adults 

The following is a useful summary of the recommendations that have been published, at times with wide variance.

  • For men: maximum of 16 standard drinks per week. This links into the above suggestion of no more than 2 standard drinks each day. Another approach is 4 x 4. This means 4 standard drinks on 4 days in the week. The 3 days in the week with no alcohol intake allows recovery of any harm caused by the alcohol to take place.
  • For women: maximum of 12 standard drinks per week, or no more than 2 standard drinks 6 days in the week. 3 x 4 (3 standard drinks on 4 days in the week) may be an even better approach as explained above.

Alcohol Consumption and the Law 



In Australia, the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers (excluding learners and provisional drivers) of motor vehicles is 0.05%. This refers to the concentration of alcohol in the blood (blood alcohol concentration, BAC) expressed in grams per 100ml of blood (0.05g/100ml).


There is 'zero tolerance' for Learners and Provisional drivers in all states and territories except the Australian Capital Territory. In the ACT, the BAC limit is 0.02% for these groups.


The general rule of thumb is that 2 standard drinks in the first hour will raise your BAC to 0.05%, and one standard drink per hour thereafter will maintain that level. Of course body size, male or female, health, consumption of food and physical activity are variables that will influence the BAC.


To do a quick calculation of whether you are over the 0.05% BAC simply take the number of hours since your first drink and add 1 to it. This is the number of standard drinks that you could safely have in that period. Then count your actual intake, and compare (from website


If you drink, do so responsibly.


*Copyright 2012: The Huntly Centre.

Disclaimer: All material in the website is provided for informational or educational purposes only. Consult a health professional regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations expressed herein, with respect to your symptoms or medical condition.



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