Heading to the Waste Management Phoenix Open this weekend? You will see the usual crowd favorites like Phil Mickelson, the 16th hole will be rowdy with cries of “you da man,” and the lines to the port-a-potty unbearably long. You’ll also likely see information from the Governor’s office in cooperation with the City of Scottsdale Police Department about its alcohol education program, “Know Your Limit,” featuring statistics for a person’s blood alcohol concentration after consuming a variety of drinks and the elimination times for those drinks.
While admirable in its effort to educate people as to alcohol consumption, these figures simply are not reliable for the vast majority of the population, completely ignoring the scientific intricacies of a person’s BAC related to gender, weight, drinking history, food consumption and elimination rates. Without going into too much detail “debunking” the pamphlet, here are a few notable highlights that everyone (especially women) MUST read if they are planning on going to the Open and drinking.
The “Standard Drink”
A “standard drink” is anything that contains 0.6 fluid ounces of ethanol. The idea of the standard drink is an effort to give people an understanding as to the alcoholic equivalent from one kind of alcoholic beverage to the next. This is based on the amount of ethanol contained in a given quantity of a drink and can be determined by the volume of the drink when compared to the alcohol by volume (abv) figure1, which the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) mandates must be listed on every alcohol beverage container sold in the United States. In layman terms (and those used in forensic (courtroom) science, the general “equivalence” is that 12 ounces of 4.2%abv (beer) has the same amount of ethanol as 5 ounces of 12%abv (wine) as 1.2 ounces of 40%abv (also known as 80 proof) (hard liquors).
The TTB has been debating since 1993 whether or not to put this information in “Serving Facts” on alcoholic beverages2. Serving Facts are the listings on all pre-packaged foods that must indicate the serving portion, the number of servings per container, as well as the calories, fat, protein, and carbohydrates in the given portion. For an alcoholic beverage, the serving portion would generally be the equivalent of one standard drink and the label would list the fluid ounces of alcohol in that portion. So why hasn’t the government mandated that these facts be on alcoholic beverage labels? For starters, it would be extremely expensive for beverage producers to conduct the kind of testing required to come up with all of this data—and that cost gets passed off to consumers. Add to that the fact that people are overwhelmed with the information on Serving Facts and often ignore them, and it’s not hard to understand the opposition to this sort of labeling.
Problems with the Standard Dink
It would be great if every time you ordered a drink, someone would instantly let you know how many standard drinks you were about to consume. Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) calculators will ask you if you’re drinking beer, wine, or hard liquor, but this only provides a rough estimation of the number of standard drinks a person is consuming. Unfortunately, an accurate determination would require a calculator, an examination of the label, and someone accurately measuring out how much alcohol was going into your glass. If you look at the labels for wine, you’ll see quite a range of abv listings—generally from 11%abv up to 14.5%abv for table wines, but dessert wines like port have much higher abvs.
The same is true for beer, a beverage commonly consumed at the Open, although their range is much greater—anywhere from 3.5%abv up to 11%abv. If you do some rough estimates, 12 ounces of a 3.5%abv beer is only 0.7 standard drinks, but 12 ounces of an 8%abv beer is roughly 2 standard drinks. There are many common beers served in the Valley well over the 4.2%abv of Coors Light: Blue Moon 5.4%, Stella Artois 5.2%, Kilt Lifter 6%, Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA 7.2%, and Dogfish Head 15%.
Factors Affecting a Person’s BAC
E.M.P. Widmark, a Swedish physician, conducted much of the pioneering research in the field of alcohol absorption and elimination during the 1930s and 1940s. He addressed many of the factors that impact a person’s blood alcohol concentration, including gender and weight. His research has been affirmed and furthered by modern-day scientists like Kurt M. Dubowski and A.W. Jones3. Alcohol is absorbed from the stomach and small intestine. A person’s BAC is affected by many factors. The list below is not comprehensive because some factors, such as absorption rates, elimination rates, and medical problems, like diabetes, are individualized. In general, people can metabolize alcohol anywhere from .01 to .02 every hour. Widmark concluded that the average elimination rate, however, was 0.015.4 This means that if a person has a BAC of 0.10, it could take anywhere from 5 to 10 hours to fully metabolize the alcohol. However, the factors listed below contribute to the absorption and elimination rates.
a. Number of standard drinks consumed. Obviously, the more alcohol consumed, the higher a person’s BAC will be.
b. Rate of consumption: the more someone drinks in a given amount of time, the higher his or her BAC will be (this is due to elimination rates, which will be discussed below).
c. Weight: a 200 pound person has more water in the body than does a 120 pound person. It takes more alcohol to create a change in BAC for the 200 pound person than it does the 120 pound person because blood is largely composed of water.
d. Gender: men’s and women’s bodies are generally not the same! Women tend to have more fat and less lean body tissue than men do. Alcohol is not absorbed into fat cells like it is in other cells in the body, so it takes the body longer to eliminate the alcohol. Women’s hormones can also slow the breakdown of alcohol.5
e. Age: “one drink raises the blood alcohol level of an older adult 20% more than it does for a young adult.”6
f. Food consumed: Food in the stomach absorbs alcohol. Drinking on an empty stomach results in higher BAC levels. High-fat and fried foods combined with alcohol result in lower alcohol elimination rates because the liver is having to do extra work to metabolize the fats, cholesterols, and the alcohol.
g. Carbonation: carbon dioxide causes alcohol to be absorbed at an increased rate. Sparkling wines like champagne have high carbon dioxide levels. Carbonated sodas are also often mixed with hard liquors.
h. Medication: many medications can also cause slower elimination rates because, like fatty foods, the liver is having to metabolize both the medication and the alcohol.
i. Personal genetic makeup: some individuals do not have aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDH), enzymes which help break down alcohol in the body.
So What Is “Par” for the Course of Drinking?
Let’s apply the actual science to a variety of beers one can consume. Consider a 120 lb. woman consuming 1 Coors Light at 4.2% alcohol versus that same woman consuming a Kilt Lifter at 6.0% alcohol. At full absorption, the 120 lb. woman’s max BAC would be roughly a .04, yet the same woman consuming a Kilt Lifter in the same fashion would be a .06. The literature provided by the government is MUCH lower than either, which says that a person will have a .03 MAX BAC; this is clearly erroneous for either scenario. At one drink over 2 hours, the difference may not matter much, but consider the same 2 beverages consumed over a day at the Open.
The woman arrives at the Open at 10am, and at that time, has her first beer, drinking one beer every 2 hours (10am, noon, 2pm, and 4pm). Following the advice on the pamphlet—stating that the burn off time for one beer is 2 hours—she stays until 6pm and then drives home. Based upon the table and information provided on the pamphlet, the alcohol would be “burned off” by the time the woman leaves.
However, applying real facts and real science to the equation, we have a completely different story. If the 120lb woman is consuming a 12 ounce Coors Light at the referenced pace (with NO FOOD) her BAC at 6pm would be roughly a .065, under the legal Arizona limit of a .08, but not by much. If that same woman is consuming a Kilt Lifter at the same pace, when she leaves the Open at 6pm, her BAC could be as much as a .15, which is the legal level of an EXTREME DUI.
It is shocking that someone could wrongly rely upon literature published by the Governor’s office and the City of Scottsdale Police Department and still get a DUI. Unfortunately, relying on this sort of information is not a defense in a DUI case and would still result in a conviction. Better than relying on information, use your common sense and good judgment in a situation like this: if you’re feeling impaired but the pamphlet says you should be okay, don’t ignore your own body and what you know from experience. Avoid a DUI altogether by choosing not to drink if you plan on driving home after the Open or if you are going to be one of the rowdy ones at the 16th hole, plan on finding a cab.
1 Richard Mendelson, Wine in America, p. 128 (2011).
2 Nutrition Labeling for Wine, Distilled Spirits, and Malt Beverages, 58 Fed. Reg. 42517 (proposed Aug. 10, 1993); http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2005-04-29/pdf/05-8574.pdf Requesting comments from industry members and the public at large regarding labeling requirements; https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2007/07/31/E7-14774/labeling-and-advertising-of-wines-distilled-spirits-and-malt-beverages In 2007, TTB brought up the issue again, but has yet to come to any distinct resolution.
3 The majority of the factors discussed below are addressed in greater detail in Kurt M. Dubowski’s “Absorption, Distribution, and Elimination of Alcohol: Highway Safety Aspects,” available at http://whydui.com/Police/absorption%20distribution%20elimination%20by%20dubowski.pdf and A.W. Jones’s “Evidence-Based Survey of the Elimination Rates of Ethanol from Blood with Applications in Forensic Casework,” available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20304569
4 E.M.P. Widmark, Principles and Applications of Medicolegal Alcohol Determination.
5 Lawrence Taylor & Steven Oberman, Drunk Driving Defense, pp. 376-77.
6 Creighton University, “Factors that Affect BAC Level,” http://www.creighton.edu/studentlife/officeoftheasstdeanofstudents/alcoholdrugeducation/alcoholbasics…
7 Fran Ridout et. al., “The Effects of Carbon Dioxide in Champagne on Psychometric Performance and Blood-Alcohol Concentration,” available at http://alcalc.oxfordjournals.org/content/38/4/381.full
8 Samir Zakhari, “Overview: How Is Alcohol Metabolized by the Body?” available at http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh294/245-255.htm
9 All of the calculations in this section were completed by Chester Flaxmayer, a local expert in the field of forensic sciences who has testified on multiple occasions in criminal trials in courtrooms throughout Arizona. He utilized an average elimination rate of .012 per hour, which would not be uncommon for a 120 lb. woman.