Alcohol measurement methodology in epidemiology: recent advances and opportunities


  • Parts of this paper are built upon a paper presented at a US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Extramural Scientific Board Meeting, Bethesda, Maryland, 5–6 May 1999 and drew upon papers given at an International Symposium and Thematic Meeting of the Kettil Bruun Society, ‘Monitoring Alcohol and Drug Related Harm: Building Systems to Support Better Policy’, Sidney, BC, Canada, 7–10 May, 2007.

Thomas K. Greenfield, Alcohol Research Group, Public Health Institute, 6475 Christie Avenue, Suite 400, Emeryville, CA 94608, USA. E-mail:


Aim  To review and discuss measurement issues in survey assessment of alcohol consumption for epidemiological studies.

Methods  The following areas are considered: implications of cognitive studies of question answering such as self-referenced schemata of drinking, reference period and retrospective recall, as well as the assets and liabilities of types of current (e.g. food frequency, quantity–frequency, graduated frequencies and heavy drinking indicators) and life-time drinking measures. Finally we consider units of measurement and improving measurement by detailing the ethanol content of drinks in natural settings.

Results and conclusions  Cognitive studies suggest inherent limitations in the measurement enterprise, yet diary studies show promise of broadly validating methods that assess a range of drinking amounts per occasion; improvements in survey measures of drinking in the life course are indicated; attending in detail to on- and off-premise drink pour sizes and ethanol concentrations of various beverages shows promise of narrowing the coverage gap plaguing survey alcohol measurement.