What Does "Drink Responsibly" Really Mean?

This Together We Thrive blog was authored by Zach McDaniel, Prevention Educator for Talbert House Prevention Services serving Clinton & Warren County

“Drink Responsibly”: An almost perfect message“Drink Responsibly” is a message often heard in commercials, seen on billboards, and promoted by alcohol beverage manufacturers and vendors everywhere.  This widespread, positive message encourages those who are legally allowed to consume alcohol to be safe and thoughtful when drinking.  The problem is, companies never explain what “Drink Responsibly” really means, or provide any guidance on exactly how to go about it. Consumers would not accept such vague recommendations on the back of a Tylenol® bottle, so why does alcohol get a pass?

While alcohol is not a medication, it is more than just a beverage. Alcohol can be harmful in certain situations and to some people.  The potential for harm is evident in the ways alcohol use is regulated, such as requiring permits for sale of alcoholic beverages, restricting where alcohol may be consumed, limiting drinking to people aged 21 or older, and defining the amount considered safe for operating a car or boat.

 To accurately define what “Drink Responsibly” means, two important questions must be considered:  

  • What is a “drink”?
  • What is considered “responsible” behavior?
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Defining “a drink” is similar to determining the standard “serving” for steak, ice cream or Pringles®.  When it comes to food, recommended serving sizes are easy to find on packaging and are widely known.  Unfortunately, this is not the case for alcohol. A “Standard Drink” is well defined and based on scientific evidence, but the recommendations are much less familiar to consumers. Often, consumers “count” the number of drinks based on the number of containers- bottles, cans, or glasses- they drank.  When it comes to alcohol, that calculation is more complicated because a “standard” drink is based on the percentage of alcohol in the beverage, and ounces matter.

Misconceptions are widespread, and overdrinking is common in American culture. Consumers may assume that the amounts they are served equal a serving and expect to get value for money.  “Eyeballing” the amount when pouring at home can be inaccurate as well. An example is ordering a local craft beer which can contain 6-8 percent alcohol – more than a standard brand. Understanding this and what is a “standard drink” is critical to practicing “Responsible Drinking”.

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While the “drink responsibly” message aims to promote health and safety, the lack of specific guidelines leave it open to interpretation.  As a part of Talbert House’s “Be One of Us” initiative, we recommend the “Low Risk Drinking Guidelines” as an actionable way to “Drink Responsibly”. These guidelines recognize the freedom of adults 21 years or older to drink alcohol, but define how much is “too much” and encourage low risk choices. The guidelines are included in the 2021 Nutrition recommendations from the CDC. However, what’s “responsible” for one person, may not be for anotherAlcohol is processed differently by people depending on sex, body size, genetics and other factors.

“Drink Responsibly” is about more than not getting behind the wheel of your car.  Knowing and adhering to “standard drink” servings and practicing low risk drinking guidelines are important for individual well-being and community safety.  

Conclusion“Drink Responsibly” is a well-intentioned message. But, its lack of detail has left us to fill the gap with pre-conceived beliefs, social norms and inaccurate information, which in turn can lead unintentionally to binge drinking behaviors. Understanding the “standard drink” and what “responsible” means can help individuals and community leaders make informed decisions about drinking. To raise awareness and provide accurate information, Talbert House Prevention Services launched the “Be One of Us” initiative. For more information or to get involved, contact Zach McDaniel at zach.mcdaniel@talberthouse.org

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