Study leader Richard de Visser of the University of Sussex and colleagues examined the knowledge of, and use of, government guidelines for safe alcohol consumption among 309 secondary school students and 125 university students.
The university students reported their alcohol consumption and completed tasks in which they poured their "usual" drinks and what the government guidelines for maximum "unit" consumption on a daily and weekly basis.
The study, scheduled to be published in a special themed issue of the journal Drug and Alcohol Review in March, found most respondents lacked the knowledge and skills required to drink in accordance with government guidelines.
Participants' "usual" drinks were substantially larger than one unit and participants tended to underestimate the unit content of drinks, the study said.
For five of the seven items measuring knowledge and guidelines, fewer than half of the respondents gave correct responses, de Visser said.
"Our results mean that people's reports of drinking patterns in research may lead to inaccurate estimates of the health effects of different levels of alcohol use," de Visser said in a statement. "There may be a need for more and/or different alcohol education in schools and the media."