Key Facts and Issues

Policy Issues  Drinking Guidelines  Key Facts and Issues

A number of countries issue recommendations and guidelines intended to inform consumers about drinking. These may be issued by government bodies, for example, by Ministries of Health, or by quasi-governmental professional organizations.


Depending on the country, drinking guidelines exist within broader nutritional or dietary guidelines, as part of a drug strategy, or as stand-alone recommendations about drinking.


Drinking guidelines include information about the risks (and, in some cases, benefits) associated with certain levels or patterns of drinking, and offer recommendations.


Recommendations may be presented as daily or weekly limits that are associated with low levels of risk. There is no consistency regarding the official threshold between “safe” or “low-risk” and “harmful” consumption.


However, risks associated with alcohol consumption exist on a continuum. For most people, drinking below a certain so-called "safe," "minimal risk," or "low-risk" level is associated with little harm, but outcomes vary (see ICAP Health Briefings).


Evidence for drinking recommendations is based on scientific evidence about the relationship between alcohol consumption and outcomes – harmful, as well as beneficial.


For example, long-term heavy drinking includes increased risk for liver cirrhosis. Steady light to moderate drinking, on the other hand, is associated with certain health benefits, such as cardio-protective effects.


Acute (short-term) heavy drinking episodes are associated with increased risk for accidents and injuries.


Guidelines often also provide different recommendations for different groups, as well as special recommendations for those considered at particular risk. 


Men and women have different sensitivities to the same levels of alcohol consumption due to differences in physiology. Recommended "safe," "minimal risk," or "low-risk" drinking levels for women are generally lower than for men.


Guidelines may include recommendations for at-risk groups who require special tailored advice. These include pregnant women, young people, older adults, and individuals who are using medications or have certain medical conditions, are alcohol-dependent or particularly susceptible to alcohol-related problems.


Specific recommendations may also be given regarding drinking in particular situations or contexts, such as when planning to drive, operating machinery, in the workplace, or while engaging in sports.


An important part of drinking guidelines is a definition of a standard drink, measured in terms of grams of ethanol, often expressed in the common commercial terms for the lay person. This measure is intended to assist those who choose to drink to monitor their alcohol intake.


 For examples, see Policy Table: International Drinking Guidelines.