Most studies find that people generally underreport alcohol consumption by about 40% to 60%. This doesn’t mean that people always lie about their drinking. To some degree, people simply don’t remember accurately.
People seem especially likely to underestimate their drinking levels to doctors. Those under age 21 in the U.S. in the may even deny that they drink alcohol. In such cases, they actually lie about their alcohol drinking.
When people underreport alcohol consumption to researchers they cause false conclusions.
Think about it. Let’s say researchers report that having three drinks a day cause a certain problem. In reality, it probably takes four or five drinks daily to cause the problem.
Additionally, underreporting misleads public policy makers. The U.S. recommends that men not have more than two drinks per day. In that case, they should probably recommend that men shouldn’t have over three daily drinks. This is important. Moderate drinking improves health and longevit
Researchers use many different methods to calculate when people underreport alcohol consumption. And they also conduct research around the world. Yet they repeatedly find under-reporting in the range of about 40% to 60%.
Here’s a good example. Researchers in Canada (Stockwell and others) studied 43,371 people. In this study they compared the reports of drinkers’ consumption “yesterday” with actual sales figures.
Here’s what they reported.
- People underreported wine consumption by about 38%.
- They underreported beer drinking by around 49%.
- Drinkers underreported their spirits consumption by around 66%.
- Men and women underreported their alcohol consumption by roughly the same degree.
- Those under the minimum legal drinking age greatly under reported their alcohol consumption.
- Less frequent drinkers underreported their consumption more than frequent drinkers.
- Bellis, M., et al. Off Measure: How We Underestimate the Amount We Drink. London: Alcohol Concern, 2009.
- Boniface, S & Shelton, N. How is alcohol consumption affected if we account for under-reporting? Euro J Pub Health, 2013, 23(6), 1076-1081.
- Livingston, M. & Callinan, S. Underreporting in alcohol surveys. Whose drinking is underestimated? J Stud Alc Drugs, 2015, 76(1), 158-164.
- Poikolainen, K. Underestimation of recalled alcohol intake in relation to actual consumption. Brit J Addict, 1995, 80, 215-216.
- Stockwell, T., et al. Who underreports their alcohol consumption in telephone surveys and by how much? Addict, 2014, 109, 1657-1666.