How Do Physicians Define “Light,”“Moderate,” and “Heavy” Drinking?


  • This study was supported by a grant from the Richard J. Barber Fund for Interdisciplinary Legal Research.

Reprint requests: Ernest L. Abel, Ph.D., C. S. Mott Center for Human Growth and Development, 275 East Hancock, Detroit, MI 48201.


Although widely used, terms associated with consumption of alcohol–such as “light,”“moderate,” and “heavy”—are unstandardized. Physicians conveying health messages using these terms therefore may impart confusing information to their patients or to other physicians. As an initial attempt to assess if informal standardization exists for these terms, the present study surveyed physicians for their definitions of such terms. Physicians operationally defined “light” drinking as 1.2 drinks/day, “moderate” drinking as 2.2 drinks/ day, and “heavy” drinking as 3.5 drinks/day. Abusive drinking was defined as 5.4 drinks/day. There was considerable agreement for these operational definitions, indicating there is indeed an informal consensus among physicians as to what they mean by these terms. Gender and age did not influence these definitions, but self-reported drinking on the part of physicians was a factor. We also asked physicians for their opinions regarding the effects of “light,”“moderate,” and “heavy” drinking on health in general and specifically on health-related implications for pregnant women, and whether they felt their patients shared these beliefs.