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Guest: ‘Responsible’ drinking: Defining the subjective


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April is Alcohol Awareness Month. So how do we define responsible drinking?

Most people know that alcohol abuse costs us all a great deal. An estimated $191 billion each year is lost in productivity, alcohol-related illnesses and accidents, services related to crime and crime victims, and substance-abuse treatment. It doesn’t have to be that way.

We often hear the phrase “please drink responsibly,” but what is “responsible”?

People frequently base their definition on their personal preferences, rather than on the actual risks to their health and safety. For instance, if my definition of responsible drinking is “as long as I don’t drive, it doesn’t matter how much I drink,” I might avoid problems with drinking and driving, yet I may be exposing myself to a variety of other health and safety problems related to overconsumption.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, low-risk drinking is the amount of alcohol an average adult can consume per day and per week, with a low risk (though not devoid of risk) of experiencing problems. Low-risk drinking for men constitutes no more than four standard drinks on any one day and no more than 14 drinks per week. (Note: This doesn’t mean a person can “save up” and have all 14 drinks in one or two days and still be low risk.)

For women, it is no more than three drinks on a single day and no more than seven drinks per week.

Because the average person can metabolize about one standard drink per hour, consuming no more than one drink per hour is recommended to reduce the risk of problems related to alcohol impairment.

In addition, size and content matters when counting drinks. A standard drink is a 12-ounce beer, five ounces of table wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof spirits. Often the way beer and wine are served to us can mean that we are getting two or three standard drinks in one container. Mixed drinks often have more than one shot of alcohol and therefore count as more than one standard drink, especially if they are served in very large containers.

Some people may think these low-risk drinking guidelines are higher than they ought to be; others may think the guidelines are too low, believing they can handle more alcohol than this without experiencing problems. These guidelines, however, are not based on personal opinion about “responsible drinking.” Rather, they are based on what research has found to reduce risk for the vast majority of people.

It is important to note that some people may still experience problems even if they drink within these limits. Our age, body size, whether we’ve eaten, and if we are sick or fatigued all affect us. And it is always recommended to avoid alcohol altogether if you are taking medications that interact with alcohol, managing a medical condition that can worsen by drinking, underage, pregnant or trying to become pregnant, or in substance-abuse recovery.

Kelly Vander Werff is the prevention manager for MECCA Services, a nonprofit group offering substance abuse prevention, early intervention, evaluation, detoxification, treatment, and aftercare.

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