Official Maximum Alcohol Drinking or Consumption Guidelines and Limits

Most countries have established official recommended maximum limits for safe alcohol consumption. Public alcohol policies are often based on these official recommendations although the guidelines tend to have little basis in science, reflecting instead a society's history, culture and attitudes toward alcoholic beverages and their consumption.

For example, Dr. Richard Smith, editor emeritus of the British Medical Journal and a member of the Royal College of Physicians committee that established the drinking guidelines for the United Kingdom in 1987, reports that the figures were not based on any clear evidence at all and "were really plucked out of the air." He said that "It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee."

However, later research suggests that the recommended guidelines (21 units* per week for men and 14 for women) may be rather low. The World Health Organization's International Guide for Monitoring Alcohol Consumption and Related harm has identified drinking below 35 units per week as low risk for men an above 53 per week as high risk. For women it identified below 17.5 units per week as low risk and high risk being above 36 units per week.

A study of 12,000 men found that the lowest mortality rates were among those drinking between 20 and 30 units of alcohol every week. To reach the death risk experienced by alcohol abstainers, a man would have to consume 63 units per week. That's equivalent to drinking about a bottle of wine or five shots of whiskey each day.

The fact that alcohol consumption guidelines are arbitrary is demonstrated by the wide variance in maximum limits recommended around the world. For example Poland's recommended limit is 12.5 units per week whereas Australia's is 35.

Indeed, much research finds better health and greater longevity associated with drinking above the recommended guidelines published by most countries.


*A unit of alcohol in the U.K is eight grams of pure alcohol.

This website makes no suggestions or recommendations about drinking alcohol or any other matter and none should be inferred.


  • Norfolk, Andrew. How "safe drinking" experts let a bottle or two go to their heads. The recommended maximum intake was set 20 years ago by doctors who simply plucked a limit out of the air. The Sunday Times (UK), October 20, 2007.

Readings on Alcohol Drinking Guidelines

  • Alcohol Policies Project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. New U.S. Guidelines on Alcohol Consumption. Alcohol Policies Project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest website.
  • Australian Government, Department of Health and Aging. Australian Alcohol Guidelines, 2003. Available at
  • Bondy, S.J., et al. Low-risk drinking guidelines. Revue Canadienne de Sante Publique, 1999, 90(4), 264-270.
  • Committee to Recommend Draft Guidelines on Low Risk Drinking for the Province of Ontario Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines Project. Phase 1: Review of Scientific Evidence. Toronto: Addiction Research Foundation, October 15, 1996.
  • Dufour, M. What is moderate drinking? Defining "drinks" and drinking levels. Alcohol Research and Health, 1999, 23(1), 5-14.
  • Edwards, G., et al. Alcohol Policy and the Public Good. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Gross, L. How much is too much? The effects of social drinking. New York: Random House, 1983.
  • International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP). International Drinking Guidelines. ICAP Report #14. Washington, DC: International Center for Alcohol Policies, 2003. This reports official drinking guidelines and recommendations for countries around the world.
  • International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP). Safe Alcohol Consumption: A Comparison of Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Sensible Drinking. ICAP Report #1. Washington, DC: International Center for Alcohol Policies 1996.
  • International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP). What is a "Standard Drink"? ICAP Report #5. Washington, DC: International Center for Alcohol Policies, 1998.
  • International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP). Government Policies on Alcohol and Pregnancy. ICAP Report #6. Washington, DC: International Center for Alcohol Policies, 2000.
  • Moderation Management. Guidelines and limits for moderate drinking. Moderation Management website.
  • Moss, A.C., et al. Knowledge of drinking guidelines does not equal sensible drinking. The Lancet, 2009, 374(9697), 1242.
  • Naimi, Tim. Radical and Dangerous: Possible Changes to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol. (Commentary). Join Together, July 9, 2010. Available at Join Together website.
  • UK Ministry of Health. Sensible Drinking: A report of an Inter-departmental Work-
  • ing Group. London: Department of Health, 1995.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005 (chapter 9, Alcoholic Beverages).
  • University of Notre Dame. Low Risk drinking Guidelines. University of Notre Dame, Office of Alcohol and Drug Education website.
  • Walsh, G.W., et al. Review of Canadian low-risk drinking guidelines and their effectiveness. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 1998, 89, 241-47.