Alcohol: Why not all use millilitres?

We could make alcohol health guidelines easier to picture, calculate and compare internationally by giving them all in millilitres.

We measure oil, water and every other liquid in metric units, so why use 20-odd different units for alcohol?


It is like a throwback to the bygone days in which Europe operated on a bewildering array of measurement systems.

An account of a medieval journey might mean converting the Finnish virsta (Russian or Swedish) to the Rheinland miele

This week’s new proposed weekly guideline of saw us scrabbling for the definition of the “Australian standard drink”.

Once converted to 125ml it could be compared easily to the UK one of 140ml, itself normally given in local units.

Offering it to begin with in millilitres would avoid this process, allowing consumers and nerds a ready-made comparison.

It would make recommendations more intuitive too. We can imagine 100ml far more easily than a bespoke unit.

The volume of alcohol is a good guide too, giving a direct picture of the number of molecules it contains, so its effects.

Using millilitres as a standard means only needing to do a one-step calculation to work out a dose, not two or three.

The alcohol present in a drink is just a drink’s alcohol percentage by volume multiplied by its volume. That’s it.

So, for example, in 500ml of 5% beer there is 0.05x500ml of alcohol, or 25ml. 

One large continental lager is, then, a fifth of the Australian weekly low-risk guideline total of 125ml.

Using alcohol specific units, by comparison, we might have two more stages, perhaps converting to mass on route.

We need not drop local units, which some may find helpful, but we could easily add the equivalent amount in millilitres in brackets.

This would be a simple way to reduce barriers in a field in which international cooperation is essential. ■