Alcohol Units

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Definition

The definition of 'a unit of alcohol' differs depending on which country is being talked about. For example:

United Kingdom

One unit of alcohol is defined as containing 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol; the amount of alcohol the average adult can process within an hour[1]. This equates to:

  • 1 unit per percentage point abv in one litre of drink
  • Approximately a half (imperial) pint (284ml) of 3.5% abv drink (0.994 units)
  • 83.¯3ml of 12% abv wine (175ml=2.1 units, 250ml=3 units)
  • 25ml measure of 40% abv spirit

United States

A standard drink is defined as containing 0.6 fluid ounce (17.05ml) or 14.0g of pure alcohol[2]. This equates to

  • 12-ounces of 5% abv beer.
  • 8-ounces of 7.5% abv malt
  • 5-ounces of 12% abv wine.
  • 1.5-ounces (44.3ml) or a “shot” of 40% abv distilled spirits or liquor.

Australia

A standard drink is defined as containing 12.5ml or 10g[3] of pure alcohol. This equates to

  • 375 ml bottle or can of 3.¯3% abv lager/beer.
  • 104 ml of 12% abv wine (100ml~=1 unit, 1.50ml ~= 1.44 units)
  • ~30ml measure of 40% abv spirit (0.96 units)

Canada

A standard drink is defined as containing 16.875ml or 13.6g[4] of pure alcohol. This equates to

  • 341ml/12oz of 5% abv lager/beer.
  • 5 oz 12% abv wine
  • ~40ml measure of 40% abv spirit (1.06 units)

World

Based on data from Sensible Drinking[1] the amount of alcohol is stated in the table in both grams and millilitres. The number of standard drinks contained in 500ml of beer of 5% ABV (a typical large drink of beer) is stated for comparison, along with daily and weekly limits, where data is available. Blank cells indicate either no guidelines given, or no data available.

Country g/Std Drink ml (based on 12.67g/ml) 500ml@5% g/day Male g/day Female g/week Male g/week Female
Argentina
Australia 10 12.67 1.97 20[5] 20
Austria 10 12.67 1.97 24 16
Belgium
Canada 13.6 17.24 1.45 41 27.2 204 136
China
Czech Republic 24 16
Denmark 12 15.21 1.64 252 168
Finland 11 13.94 1.79 165 110
France 10 12.67 1.97 30 20
Germany 24 16 120 80
Greece 10 12.67 1.97 30 20
Hungary 17 21.55 1.16
Iceland
India
Ireland 10 12.67 1.97 40 30 210 140
Italy 12 15.21 1.64 36 24
Japan 19.75 25.03 1.00 39.5
Luxembourg
Malta 3 drinks 2 drinks
Netherlands 9.9 12.55 1.99 30 18.8
New Zealand 10 12.67 1.97 30 14 210 140
Norway
Poland 10 12.67 1.97 20 10 100 50
Portugal 14 17.74 1.41 42 28
Romania 32.5 32.5
Russia
Singapore 30 30
Slovenia 20 10
South Africa[6] 12 15.21 1.64 252 168
Spain 10 12.67 1.97 40 24
Sweden 20 20
Switzerland 12 15.21 1.64 24 24
Taiwan
Thailand
UK 7.89 10.00 2.50 32 24 168 112
USA 14 17.74 1.41 56 42 196 98
WHO 3 drinks on average 2 drinks on average

Daily/Weekly limits

Controversially, however, Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal and a member of the Royal College of Physicians, which came up with the UK report from a committee of doctors in 1987, which set out weekly limits of 21 units(168g) for men, and 14(98) units for women, has admitted that the weekly limits were essentially "plucked out of thin air.":

[Richard Smith] recalled that the committee could find "no decent data" on the subject, but felt obliged to make a recommendation nonetheless.

He said: "They weren't really based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee." [7]

And from Richard's own blog

Kristin Wolfe, head of alcohol policy at SAB Miller, one of the world’s largest brewers, said that 80-90% of people are responsible drinkers and that the harm results from the other 10-20%. She accepted that people should be given information on safe limits, but she pointed out that there is considerable variation in advice around the world: in Australia the advised limit is 20 grams a day, whereas in Portugal its 37 grams; in the US a unit is 14 grams, contrasting with the 8 grams in Britain.[8]

Subsequent studies had shown that the guidelines should have been higher[9] but were ignored by successive governments.

More recently, Oxford University have produced a report recommending that the daily limit be reduced to 1/2 a (UK) unit a day (about 1/2 pint beer):

An Oxford University study found that the beneficial effects of alcohol have been exaggerated and thousands of deaths from cancer and liver cirrhosis could be prevented.

[...]

This level may “not be compatible with optimum protection of public health', the research published in the journal BMJ Open found.

[...]

"[...] A couple of pints or a couple of glasses of wine per day is not a healthy option.

"We are not telling people what to do[...][10]

References