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"Drinking responsibly" is promoted by everyone from public health officials to beer advertisers, but it's unclear how many people understand what that means.
A recent study from Sweden showed that between 94 and 97 percent of respondents did not know the line between sensible drinking and heavy drinking that can damage health.
It's not clear that Americans would fare any better in their knowledge of the amount of drinking that threatens their health, though a comparable study has not been done in the U.S.
"In general, people are very capable of defining their drinking and giving reasonably good estimates of what they drink," said Thomas Babor, the chair of community medicine and public health at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. "What they are not good at estimating is what amounts of alcohol are going to do damage."
The new study was based on survey responses from 3,200 people about their drinking and what they knew about safe levels of drinking. It was published in June issue of the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism.
How much is bad for your health?
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as one drink per day for a woman or two for a man. Heavy drinking is consuming more than three drinks in a day or seven in a week for a woman or more than four in a day or 14 in a week for a man. The department noted that some people should abstain completely, including people who will be driving, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding and people who cannot control their alcohol intake.
Babor explained that those limits are based on what levels of drinking have been associated with negative health outcomes, such as cancer or liver cirrhosis.
In that vein, the U.S. Department of Agriculture notes in their nutrition guidelines that while some studies show benefits to moderate drinking, "it is not recommended that anyone begin drinking or drink more frequently on the basis of potential health benefits, because moderate alcohol intake also is associated with increased risk of breast cancer, violence, drowning and injuries from falls and motor vehicle crashes."
Why don't we know the limits?
Babor said one of the largest obstacles to better awareness is popular media, where people are often seen exceeding the limits of moderate drinking, although it is not portrayed as such.
In the new study, the Swedish researchers expressed disappointment in the lack of effect the health system had in reducing drinking. A separate study published last month documented that fewer than 15 percent of Swedes are asked about alcohol consumption at doctors' visits.
Babor expressed optimism that physician involvement could help reduce excessive drinking in the U.S. and raise awareness of safe levels, as studies have shown that it can help reduce drinking.
But he also encouraged adopting strategies from elsewhere.
"In countries like the United Kingdom, there have been mass media campaigns to get people to recognize what the safe limits are," he said. "In some cases, the limits are posted in bars, in menus. It's possible to disseminate this information."
He also said this information should be placed in ads. When alcohol companies urge people to drink responsibly, Babor said, "there’s no reason they can’t give what safe limits are."
Pass it on: Most people may be unaware of how much drinking can damage health.