Tory spokesman supports centilitres of alcohol

In a commendable outbreak of common sense, Conservative health spokesman, Andrew Lansley, has proposed that, in order to clarify the amount of alcohol being consumed, bottles and cans should be labelled with the quantity of pure alcohol in centilitres rather than in so called “units”.  But will this lead to a wider realisation that draught beer should also be measured in litres?

Interviewed* on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme, Shadow Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley made a compelling argument for replacing “units” with centilitres.  They are of course exactly the same thing, but unless drinkers actually know that a “unit” is a centilitre, they are unable to relate the “alcohol by volume” (ABV – also indicated on the bottle or tin) to the volume they are drinking (indicated in litres – except in the case of draught beer and cider, but see below).  The use of “units” thus has the perverse effect of obscuring the amount of alcohol that people are drinking.

So for once a politician is ahead of the health professionals, although he did not add that no labelling scheme will be fully effective unless it is mandatory.   According to the BBC website report,  Alcohol Concern were “lukewarm” about the proposal, commenting that “many people were beginning to get a grasp on units”.  [Perhaps if “many people” knew what a “unit” was, they might get an even better grasp].

However, Mr Lansley did not venture into the vexed question of pints of draught beer.  Herein probably lies the reason why many health professionals are unenthusiastic about calling a centilitre a centilitre.  Draught beer and cider are still measured exclusively in pints, and unless you know that a pint is 568 ml, it is no help to know that a “unit” is a centilitre, as you can’t multiply the ABV by the quantity to calculate the number of centilitres.  So, according to this argument, you might as well stick with obscure “units”.

The obvious answer is to bring draught beer and cider into line with all other alcoholic drinks, both draught and bottled/canned.  As a first step, as we have recently argued on this blog, metric quantities of draught beer and cider should be permitted on a voluntary basis in pubs and restaurants that wish to offer them.  If drinks were then also properly labelled, nobody would have any excuse for being unaware of what they were drinking.

In summary, therefore, labelling of alcoholic drinks – both bottled/canned and draught – should be mandatory, and should include:

  • Statement of quantity contained or dispensed (in metric units)
  • “Alcohol by volume” in percentages
  • The quantity (in centilitres) of pure alcohol in the container or in the quantity dispensed

* The interview can be heard on the BBC Radio 4’s “Listen Again”.  It comes at about 07:12 on Wednesday, 13 January.  Or try this link.

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26 Responses to Tory spokesman supports centilitres of alcohol

  1. David Brown says:

    This seems a little back-to-front to me. There is no need to mention the alcohol content of a bottle of alcohol because it is already labelled with the volume of drink and the alcohol by volume for that drink, and these labels are already mandatory. Any fool can work out how much alcohol the bottle contains. What is required is for the Department of Health to stop inventing new units. They should quote the recommended daily allowance of alcohol in terms of ml (or cl if they must).

    In my view, the UKMA should take a harder line on the use of non-metric measures for draught beer and cider. Non-metric measures should be outlawed as a matter of urgency. The argument for this is very strong, whereas the argument for retaining the pint is simply frivolous nonsense. Besides being able to calculate how much alcohol you are drinking, metric measures would effectively reduce the size of a standard drink by 13% and allow for 250 ml and 330 ml sizes to give still more options for drinking less. The government’s recent change to allow a 2/3 pint measure will have the opposite effect, but encouraging people who drink ½ pints to size-up.

  2. Tony says:

    The government seems very happy to hide the alcohol content through means such as the 'Unit'. Surely it would be simpler to allow people to work out their alcohol intake by serving in more rational sizes. British beer (as opposed to continenal lager) is sold in 500 ml bottles, which make the equation very simple. In pubs, however, this serving is not legal, and pubs serve beer in glasses of 568 ml, with anywhere between 90 and 99% of that being liquid.
    Incredibly, if you drink British beer at home, the government's 'alcohol calculator' at doesn't even try to help you, with no 500 ml option, only lager sizes and pub maximum (but not actual) 568 ml sizes.
    If pubs served liquid to a 500 ml in a pint glass - with the head usually filling the space above the line - we would easily be able to work out that one beer at 4% is 20 ml = 2 cl = 2 units.
    Try doing that equation after a couple of beers served in a glass of 568 ml with around 5% head in one and 3% head in the other!

  3. philh says:

    Another possible angle to this is to point out that alcohol content needs to be treated in the same way as other ingredients for food-stuff where we have to watch our consumption, such as salt, fat and sugar. In other words how much in terms of ordinary units, grams per 100 g for solids and millilitres per 100 ml for liquids (same as percentage of course but at least it wouldn't involve any new concepts).

    That would pave the way for a proper statement about recommended limits in millilitres per day instead of silly "units" that don't mean a thing.

  4. Tom c says:

    Ok understand what you guys are saying but i tech people about safe drinking and as a 22 year old i go out clubben alot, i have talked to alot of people my age and we said it should be put in metric like 275ml botle of glolsch beer = 14ml of alcohol... Units is just a number thats out dated, most people pulled over and get done for drink driving dont understand Units,

  5. A says:

    Why use cL and mL on the label though? why not have the alcohol content in mL and the total volume in mL with ABV in %? Does it not make more sense to have a bit of continuity?

    A 500 mL container with 500 mL beer, with alcohol content of 15 mL/3 % is a bit clearer than 500 mL with 3 cL. Of course its the same amount either way but its muddling up the magnitude of the units. It would make more sense to have 50 cL and 30 mL. No one says 10,000 m give or take 2 km do they? Maybe 10 km give or take 2000 m.

    The average daily alcohol intake is about 4 units? so thats 40 mL and drinks are sold in mL. Drink two 500 mL beers with 15 mL alcohol content and 30 mL of alcohol has been consumed. Easy enough. No ambiguity.

    The spokesman should have went one step further and suggested using mL instead and just forget about units altogether. The whole process could be simplified and made clearer. This is probably one of the reasons why people have no clue what units means and how much they are consuming and probably makes them not even care!

  6. A says:

    Edit the paragraph:

    500 mL beer, with alcohol content of 15 mL is a bit clearer than 500 mL with 1.5 cL. Of course its the same amount either way but its muddling up the magnitude of the units. It would make more sense to have 50 cL and 15 mL. No one says 10,000 m give or take 2 km do they? Maybe 10 km give or take 2000 m.

  7. Martin Vlietstra says:

    The advantage of using centilitres rather than units is that journalists and health professionals will have a better understanding of the alcohol content of drinks and they will find it easiet to tune their message to their audience.

  8. Pat Naughtin says:

    I agree with A who says:

    'A 500 mL container with 500 mL beer, with alcohol content of 15 mL/3 % is a bit clearer than 500 mL with 3 cL.'

    However, I am quite concerned about the introduction of the metric prefix, centi, into a context where it would be used everyday.

    I have studied the progress of metrication attempts all around the world, and in many different industries, where I have observed that the use of the metric system prefix, centi, in the unit centimetre very dramatically delays the success of the metrication process. See

    I have not specifically studied the places where centilitre is used, but on the basis of the enormous delays with centimetre I would not recommend its use without considerable study – and even then I would require massive evidence of its speed of adoption and of its non-transference to other industries – centilitres of oil, paint, or vinegar, are examples – before I could recommend its use.

    Pat Naughtin
    Geelong, Australia

  9. Robin Paice says:

    I am sorry that this discussion is tending to divert on to centilitres versus millilitres, rather than sticking to the main point of the article - i.e. scrapping so-called"units" and permitting draught beer in convenient metric quantities. For the record, both cl and ml are in widespread use in catering and in recipes etc in the UK and more particularly in continental Europe, and despite the theoretical possibility of confusion, I am not aware of a significant problem. Most people can multiply or divide by 10 and move a decimal point. So can we please get back to the original subject of the article.

  10. philh says:

    Further to my comments earlier, if the labeling was in the form of ml alc per 100 ml drink, it would strengthen the case for rational metric quanities.

    E.g. with beer marked as alcohol: 4 ml per 100 ml, it would be effortless for just about anyone to work out that a 500 ml glassful contains 20 ml (or 2 cl if you prefer).

    I know this amounts to the same thing but it wouldn't demand that the consumer understands percentages. Presumably the practice of labelling nutrion information as per 100 g is for the same reason.

  11. Jeremiah says:

    As much as we would like it if they used the metric terms instead of hiding from them behind words like "units", we can at least be grateful that the unit of alcohol was made to equal a rounded metric amount.

    It could have been decided that a unit was equal to an ounce or something else in imperial.

    The problem isn't with the name, it is with the products that don't come in rounded metric sizes. For example, one can calculate that a "pint" of beer contains 56.8 "units" of beer. Now if the alcohol content was 5 %, the difficulty in estimating the amount of alcohol becomes difficult so no one bothers to figure it out. A quick estimate would be that 10 % would yield 5.68 units of alcohol, so 5 % would be half of 5.68 or 2.84 units.

    It would be simpler to calculate 5 % of 600 mL and get 3 % or 5 % of 500 mL and get 2.5 %.

    So, if there is a difficulty, then the solution should be to change the legal amounts of dispensed alcohol to rounded metric sizes.

  12. Michael says:

    I am just amazed that a potential Tory policy has even dared to mention a metric measurement at all! My local Tory MP (one David Cameron) wrote a letter to me stating that he was a supporter of "whichever units the British People favoured based on their history and traditions" while acknowledging that further metrication was dependent on "consensus of the public and business"

  13. philh says:

    It does matter that a centilitre of alcohol is needlessly disguised as "unit". Hiding metric units like this acts as a barrier to people learning to use the metric system and appreciating its advantages.

  14. philh says:

    Units of alcohol are in the news again:

    If only they would say just that the safe limit for older people is 15 ml per day then that "small glass of wine" might be pinned down to something meaningful.

  15. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Today (14 September 2011), the BBC reported that Alcohol Concern has recommended that the minimum price of alcoholic drinks should be 50p per unit. While the UKMA should obviously have no view on the proposal as a whole, it is very much part of the UKMA's remit to ensure that the population at large are aware that one unit of alcohol is one centilitre (10 ml) of pure alcohol.

  16. Wild Bill says:

    Units of alcohol being metric is interesting, but hardly surprising. No UK government science has been done in non-metric units since the early 1980's at the latest AFAIK.

    Is is however the case that regardless of the science of alcohol usage, draught beer and cider in pubs is sold in pints. No government is likely to want to face the barrage of anti-EU ranting in the tabloid press to change that.

    Unless of course it can be shown that there might be a genuine health reason for doing it, and I might have such a reason....

    Consider this situation: you drink Guinness(*) down at your local. They don't have Guinness on tap, so when you ask for a Guinness they take a 500ml bottle out of the fridge (or a 500ml can) and serve you with that. You're used to it, and indeed plenty of the UK pub-going public are used to being served 500ml servings of beer if their pub doesn't do their favourite on draught.

    You go and stay with your brother (in a different town) for the weekend. You pop out for a beer on Saturday night after the footie. He gets the round. You ask for your favourite - a Guinness.

    Unknown to you, your brother's local *does* have Guinness on draught, so unknown to you (not being at the bar), you get a pint, not 500ml. That's 12% more than you're used to, but in the hubbub, would you notice?

    6 pints later, you're falling all over the place and wondering why. You'd think that the government would want to set up the rules so that people knew what they were drinking - the claim that they do - but here that's not the case.

    Suppose instead that you drink just one unexpected pint. You've still consumed 12% more than you planned. Are you over the drink-drive limit? You may know that you aren't normally, but that's at home when you're drinking 500ml measures. You could lose your licence and more - and all due to the confusion that the government causes with their insistence on their "pints for draught beer and cider" rules.

    Just a thought....

    (*) or Grolsch, or......

  17. Ken Cooper says:


    Wild Bill

    Are you aware of the "Guinness Surger". It adds yet another layer to the confusion between draught "pints" and various non-draught ways of serving short measure "things that look like pints"

    You might almost think that the brewers were actually interested in finding new ways of keeping legitimised short measure.............

  18. philh says:

    Government has today (2012-03-23) announced plans to put a lower price limit on alcohol of "40p per unit".

    It is controversial as one would expect but a pity they don't come clean on what they really mean. What they are actually proposing is 40p/cL or 4p/mL.

    So for example a 500 mL can of beer or lager with a strength of 4% ABV; in other words 4 mL alcohol per 100 mL of booze giving us 5 x 4 mL = 20 mL alcohol. That makes it 20 x 4p = 80p

    As another example take a 700 mL bottle of wine at 12.5% ABV; 12.5 mL per 100 mL gives us 7 x 12.5 mL = 87.5 mL.
    Then 87.5 x 4p = 350p (or £3.50) minimum.

    So easy to work out when we are told what a unit is!

  19. Ronnie Cohen says:

    I suspect that many people will not know what a unit of alcohol is. Why do they use this ambiguous, unimaginative, obscure name (i.e. "unit")? In measurement, the term "unit" can mean any measurement unit. So why don't they call a spade a spade and call it a centilitre of alcohol then at least everyone will know what they are talking about. Although centilitres are not commonly used, it won't take the masses long to learn that a centilitre is a hundredth of a litre.
    Why do they feel the need to hide the use of metric units from the public by using obscure names instead of educating the public about the metric system?

  20. John Steele says:

    To add to the confusion, the U.S. has a"unit" of alcohol too. Only it is 0.5 US fl oz, call it 15 mL, near enough. We should both define it in metric.

  21. Wild Bill says:

    Phil, Ronnie - please get real guys!

    Your average drinker down the pub on a Friday night is *not* going to manage to work out how many mL of pure Ethanol there are in a pint (or 500mL!) of beer. Or a 185ml glass of 10.5% wine.

    Far better for us to have a "unit" or whatever you want to call it, with clear guidance that (say 1½) "units" is a man's drink-drive limit. And then for point-of-sale to make sure you can tell how many "units" there are in a given serving of a given beverage.

    Of course, if there is to be a "unit" then it must be documented somewhere what its definition is. I don't understand why the UK government seems reluctant to do that, when everyone and their dog has reverse-engineered the fact that one unit = 10mL of pure Ethanol.

    But come on - I think the use of a "unit" to help people know what they are drinking makes perfect sense. Just stop trying to obfuscate what a unit actually *is* eh?

  22. Michael Glass says:

    I don't know why anyone would be dealing with centilitres. In Australia we have litres and millilitres and that's all we need for normal measurements.

  23. philh says:

    Dear Wild Bill

    I fully share the concern about people drinking too much. The best time for people to reflect on what they tend to drink is when they are sober so they can be aware of their safe limits before they go down the pub. But we shouldn't forget that's not the only place alcohol is consumed.

    The trouble with published guidance is that it doesn't impress on people how much the alcohol content of (and hence the number of units) varies with different beers and wines for the same amount.

    People are entilted to know the facts, why should they have to reverse engineer it?

    The obfuscation is in the use of "units" instead of proper measurement surely?

  24. Wild Bill says:

    Dear Philh:

    I think we must have missed each other's points a bit recently. I hear what you say above, but quite frankly I just don't believe that Joe Sixpack would manage to "do the sums" to work out his alcohol consumption even if the government would own up to the fact that a "unit" is 10 mL of pure alcohol.

    It's easy for you and me to see that if you have a drink of N% A.B.V, then 1/N litres of the stuff contains one unit (assuming a unit is indeed 10 mL). That works out easy if you're drinking 4% real ale: i.e 1/4 litres (250 mL) would be one unit. But it's tougher if you're drinking 11.5% wine. You'll need a pocket calculator to turn 1/11.5 of a litre into (tap tap tap) 86.95 - call it 87 mL, and therefore to know that 87 mL of that sort of wine is "one unit".

    What you really need is labelling on the bottle (if you're drinking it at home) or on a card at the back of the bar (if you're in a pub) telling you how many mL equals one unit for each individual drink. Or better, do it the other way around, have a label or card that tells you how many units there are in each of the standard serving sizes for that beverage. Just like the labels in Tesco that tell you that milk is 65.3p per litre (even though it's being sold in 568 mL/1 pint containers).

    I think we're getting distracted here. Fine - so a unit is 10 mL of alcohol. The UKMA's got serious issues to bother about, honestly I don't consider this to be more than a sideshow. Certainly not a pointer to metrication success in the UK. It was thought up by scientists in the last 50 years - of course it's based on SI measures!

    CO² emissions on cars are measured in g/km, *that's* an SI-based metric just like drink units are. UKMA's not making a fuss about that is it?

  25. philh says:

    An interesting remark in a local newspaper article:

    '... studying the impact of alcohol on outcomes is fraught with difficulty. These difficulties include people not all having the same idea of what a "drink" or "unit" is. '

    Note also that the UK unit is not the same as the US unit. An explicit reference to centilitres would resolve the uncertainty.

  26. John Steele says:

    The US drink unit is defined as 0.5 US fl oz of pure (anhydrous) alcohol (percentage ABV times volume). This is approximately 15 mL (14.7868 mL if you wish to split hairs) or about 11.7 g of alcohol. They have misstated it in the article. My understanding of the UK unit is 10 mL, or about 8 g, figured the same way (volume times percent ABV.)

    Our 7 drinks per week (avg 1/day) is equivalent to about 10.4 UK drinks/week, not 12 as stated. For spirits, our proof is also different from UK, being defined as twice the percent ABV.


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