What are low risk drinking guidelines?

If you move in certain circles, you may have heard that the Canadian government will be releasing new “low-risk drinking guidelines” in the near future. So, what are they exactly?

Low risk drinking guidelines have been developed in various provinces and countries as a way of helping adults to make informed decisions about the amount of alcohol they consume. As we know, there is a lot of information and misinformation out there. Should you drink some wine for your heart? Or, does any alcohol use at all increase your risk of breast cancer? How much should you drink at a time? And is wine better than vodka?

Low risk drinking guidelines give suggestions for daily and weekly drinking limits (for men and women) and other suggestions for minimizing the risks associated with drinking alcohol (e.g., drinking slowly, drinking with food, alternating  between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages).

Low risk drinking guidelines are not without controversy. If you’re familiar with the concept of the prevention paradox, it could be argued that the real message people should be given is to “Drink less” – no matter who you are or how much you currently drink. Supporters of low risk drinking guidelines argue that people just won’t listen to this message and that it’s more pragmatic to recommend a threshold at which most Canadian drinkers are at low risk. You can read about how the expert advisory panel determined these guidelines for the Canadian population in the article listed below.

While low risk drinking guidelines are generally directed at the general population, the new guidelines will include information on alcohol and pregnancy.

Stockwell et al (2011) comment on what would happen if the new low risk drinking guidelines were adopted by all Canadians:

  • the annual numbers of alcohol-caused deaths in Canada would be reduced by approximately 4600
  • overall consumption of alcohol in Canada would be reduced by at least 50%


Website (2003): Low-risk Drinking Guidelines: Maximize life, minimize risk.

Stockwell T, Butt P, Beirness D, Gliksman L, Paradis C. (2011). The basis for Canada’s new low-risk drinking guidelines: A relative risk approach to estimating hazardous levels and patterns of alcohol use. Drug and Alcohol Review,  DOI: 10.1111/j.1465-3362.2011.00342.x.

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