Helping consumers help themselves? Demystifying Canada’s low-risk drinking guidelines

The chance of experiencing harm from alcohol consumption is related to how much alcohol we actually drink. So, naturally, to reduce our likelihood of experiencing harm from alcohol we need to decrease our consumption. But how much alcohol is too much? Is there a “safe” level of consumption?

In November 2011, the federal, provincial and territorial health ministers adopted national Low Risk Drinking Guidelines that were developed by a team of Canada’s alcohol experts. Drinking guidelines provide recommendations about specific upper limits of alcohol consumption, which can minimize your likelihood of experiencing alcohol-related harm. Unfortunately, many Canadian’s are unaware that these guidelines even exist! The current guidelines recommend that to reduce long-term health risks women should usually drink no more than 10 drinks per week and men usually no more than 15 drinks per week. To reduce short-term risks, such as injuries, women should drink no more than 3 drinks and men no more than 4 drinks on a single occasion. But what is a “drink”? If you drank two bottles of wine last week, how many drinks did you actually have?

Research shows that we considerably underestimate how much alcohol we consume. This is understandable given the large variety of alcoholic beverages in the market that vary not only in strength but also in container size. Canada’s drinking guidelines define a “drink” as 13.45 grams of ethanol. This is equal to 341ml of 5% beer or cooler, 142ml of 12% wine, or 43ml of 40% spirits. So, if one of us drank 2 bottles of wine last week, how many drinks was that? Still don’t know the answer? Without a calculator, we don’t either!

Some countries have introduced standard drink labeling on alcohol containers to inform consumers how many drinks are in each alcoholic beverage they purchase. In Australia for example, a typical 750ml bottle of 12% wine would have a label that says “Contains 7.1 standard drinks” (this would be equal to 5.3 Canadian standard drinks). In Canada, the alcohol in our stores is labeled with only alcohol concentration by volume (%ABV), not standard drinks – requiring consumers to “do the math”. Not surprisingly, a recent CARBC study showed that British Columbians are not very accurate in determining the number of drinks in a beverage when only provided with %ABV labels. Shockingly, some spirit drinkers thought that they were drinking up to 7 times less than they actually were! CARBC research has shown that adding standard drink labels (e.g. for a 40% strength bottle of spirits: “17.5 standard drinks”) overcomes this problem. Further, nearly 83% of British Columbians who participated in this study were in favor of standard drink labeling and believed that standard drink labels would help them to comply with Canada’s drinking guidelines. Given what you know now… if one of us drank 2 bottles of wine last week, how many drinks did we have? (5.3*2 = 10.6 standard drinks).

It’s estimated that if everyone in Canada were to follow the low-risk drinking guidelines the annual number of alcohol-related deaths would decrease by 4600 . We need to do a better job of sharing these guidelines with Canadians.  Pamphlets with the guidelines could be placed in doctor’s offices, and posted in liquor outlets, bars and restaurants.  But in order for the guidelines to be effective, we also have to better equip Canadians to follow them – without having to do the math.

Do you think standard drink labels would help consumers follow Canada’s low-risk drinking guidelines? 

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Authors, from left to right: Kara Thompson, Montana Osiowy

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One thought on “Helping consumers help themselves? Demystifying Canada’s low-risk drinking guidelines

  1. Yes, I think it would be a start. I think having the labels is a great idea for people to be able to see for themselves just how much they do drink, I see people drink a lot more than what they think they drink. I know most people don’t measure wine when they pour a glass.

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