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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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College Alcohol 101: How Big Is 1 Drink?

Many College Students -- and Probably Other Adults -- Don’t Know
WebMD Health News

College students tend not to know the standard size of a drink of alcohol, and their misunderstanding could be dangerous, says a new study.

In the study of 133 undergraduates, the students overpoured alcohol and underestimated their drinking, says Aaron M. White, PhD. White worked on the study, which appears in April's issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The bigger the cup, the more alcohol the students poured.

"Most were really surprised. They did not realize they were drinking as much as they were," says White, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University.

"They've been taught that four to five drinks were a dangerous level," White tells WebMD. "That's drilled into their heads. When you tell them that they're actually having six to eight drinks, a lot of those kids are really concerned."

"When we asked them to simply define how many ounces there should be in a single drink, they tended to give us numbers that were way too big. This tells us a few things. The first is that we have totally failed to teach students some of the most basic information about alcohol -- what a single serving is," writes White.

White says studies he's seen suggest that "adults really have no idea what a drink is, either." A 2005 survey by the American Medical Women's Association agrees.

The survey included 253 doctors, residents, and medical students. Eighty percent agreed that most adults who choose to drink do not know how the government defines a "standard drink" --12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

Not understanding serving size could have severe consequences.

For instance, a college woman who thinks she can have four drinks safely and has "four huge mixed drinks with five ounces of liquor in each drink, she literally could die," says White. "What if she defines one drink as a 22-ounce cup of wine from a box?"

Apart from the health risks, the findings may call into question research on f. college drinking. Let's say that college students report having three drinks per week one year, and only one weekly drink the next year.

On the surface, that looks like college drinking dropped. But if the trend in the second year was to use huge cups, the actual number of drinks could be off, says White. "It depends on what's in vogue, which I think makes it hard to track over time," he says.

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