National Consumers League

NCL challenges myth that some alcoholic beverages are safer and less potent

July 16, 2008

New Initiative Underscores Need for New Alcohol Label

Contact: 202-835-3323, media@nclnet.org

Washington, DC – For the many Americans confused about the potency of different alcoholic beverages, one of the most respected national consumer organizations has this important message: it is a myth that beer and wine are not as strong as the typical cocktail. Standard serving sizes of all alcohol beverages -- beer, wine, and distilled spirits -- are equal in alcohol strength and their effect on the body.

Because even the most basic information about alcohol content is not clearly and consistently listed on the labels of beer, wine and distilled spirits products, the National Consumers League is going public with Alcohol: How It All Adds Up, a new initiative challenging the myth that some alcoholic beverages are “safer” and less “potent” than others. According to the League, this belief is pervasive and linked with the overconsumption of alcohol and the permissive attitudes of some parents about underage drinking. In an opinion poll commissioned by the Center for Government Reform, 88% of parents mistakenly concluded that beer is safer than liquor.

“Without ready access to information about the amount of alcohol they are consuming, many Americans believe that beer and wine offer a ‘soft’ option and can be consumed in greater amounts than so-called ‘hard’ liquor,” said Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of the League. “We are trying to give consumers the basics about the alcohol content of different alcoholic beverages, but the real answer is government action to require standardized and complete labeling information on beer, wine and distilled spirits products. Consumers should know how many calories, carbohydrates, and other nutrition information are in a standard drink. They have it for nonalcoholic beverages, food, and nonprescription drugs. It is time for this information to be on the labels for alcoholic beverages.”

The Meaning of a “Standard Drink”

While renewing its calls for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to make information about the alcohol content per serving a requirement on alcohol labels, the League is attempting to fill the void with a new guide that tackles one of the most important concepts for consumers to grasp – what constitutes a “standard drink.” Research commissioned by the League finds 54% of Americans don’t know there is such a thing as a “standard drink,” even though a large majority of state drivers’ license manuals and national and state public health agencies use the “standard drink” concept to explain responsible drinking.

As the guide explains, the common denominator for a “standard drink” of beverage alcohol is 0.6 fluid ounces of pure alcohol. Based on this amount of alcohol, a standard drink consists of a 12-ounce bottle or can of regular beer (5% alcohol), a 5-ounce glass of regular (dinner) wine (12% alcohol), and a 1.5 ounce drink of 80 proof (40% alcohol) distilled spirits or liquor (either straight or in a mixed drink).

“It shouldn’t take a calculator to know how much alcohol you are consuming,” Greenberg stated. “Better labeling is badly needed to tell how many ‘standard drinks’ are in a particular product. If consumers can tell from the label how many standard drinks they are consuming, they can learn their limits and avoid exceeding them.”

Misperceptions Contribute to Underage Drinking, Binge Drinking

As part of its initiative, the National Consumers League is also calling on parents and community leaders to address underage drinking, reporting that parents often underestimate how early drinking begins, how much alcohol their adolescents consume, and the risks involved. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), three-fourths of 12th graders, more than two-thirds of 10th graders, and about two in every five 8th graders have consumed alcohol. Compounding the problem, research commissioned by The Century Council finds that 65% of underage youth who drink obtain alcohol from their parents, their friends’ parents, older friends and older siblings or have easy access to alcohol on college campuses.

“Parents need to understand that one can of beer or one wine cooler has roughly the alcohol equivalence of one shot of vodka,” said Greenberg. “Believing otherwise undermines and runs counter to all we know and all we have done to prevent underage drinking.”

While underage drinking is associated with motor vehicle crashes, major injuries and delinquency problems, what is not well understood is its link to binge drinking, which NIAAA defines as a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 grams percent or above. For the typical adult, this pattern corresponds to consuming five or more drinks for men, or four or more drinks for women, in about 2 hours. Consumption at this pace can also result in alcohol poisoning, a serious condition that can lead to choking, coma and even death.

“Study after study shows that parents have the most influence over their teen’s decision to drink,” Greenberg said. “Parents should be a role model for their teen about responsible drinking, whether they drink or not. This means talking regularly and often about drinking alcohol, including how to resist the peer pressure that can lead to underage and binge drinking.”

New Tools for Consumers

To improve Americans’ alcohol awareness, the National Consumers League is making available a new Alcohol: How it all adds up guide and a series of information sheets about alcohol content, alcohol labels, and binge drinking to consumers, community leaders and health professionals. These materials are available in downloadable form on the League’s Web site, www.nclnet.org.