Alcohol & problem drinking

For many adults, a drink after work or with family and friends is an important part of socialising and relaxing. However for others, one drink is never enough. Find out how much is a standard drink, the effects of alcohol on our bodies and where to get help if you or a loved one's drinking is becoming a problem.

Key points

  1. In 2017/18, 19.8% of New Zealand adults aged 15 years and above were classified as hazardous drinkers (around 775,000 adults). Males (27.3%) were twice as likely as females (12.7%) to be hazardous drinkers and more than one-third (38.1%) of young men (aged 18 to 24 years) were hazardous drinkers.
  2. Problem drinking can lead to physical or psychological addiction and long-term health problems.
  3. It's important to know what a safe level of drinking alcohol is and whether you may have a problem.
  4. If you do have a problem with drinking alcohol, there are treatments and support to help you to take charge of or stop your drinking.

What is problem drinking ? 

Alcoholism (alcohol dependence) and alcohol abuse are two different forms of problem drinking:

  • Alcoholism is when you have signs of physical addiction to alcohol and continue to drink, despite problems with physical health, mental health, and social, family, or job responsibilities. Alcohol may control your life and relationships.
  • Alcohol abuse is when your drinking leads to problems, but not physical addiction.

Drinking too much in one go (binge drinking) or drinking too much over time (alcohol misuse) can both lead to long-term health problems. People who have alcoholism or alcohol abuse often: 

  • continue to drink, even when health, work, or family are being harmed
  • drink alone
  • become violent when drinking
  • are not able to control drinking - being unable to stop or reduce alcohol intake
  • make excuses to drink
  • need to use alcohol on most days to get through the day
  • try to hide alcohol.

 Alcohol use questionnaire Patient Info, UK

A re-think of the way we drink

We come across so many different messages about alcohol. Some say it's good for our health, others say it's not and increases our risk of cancer, dementia and more. What is really true? Dr Evans and his team provide an excellent overview in this short video.  

(Dr Mike Evans, Evans HealthLab, Feb 2015, 9 minutes)

Tips to lower your drinking risks

It is possible to drink at a level that is less risky, while still having fun. There are a number of things you can do to make sure you stay within low risk levels and don’t get to a stage where you are no longer capable of controlling your drinking. These include:

  • Know what a standard drink is
  • Keep track of how much you drink – daily and weekly
  • Set limits for yourself and stick to them
  • Start with non-alcoholic drinks and alternate with alcoholic drinks
  • Drink slowly
  • Try drinks with a lower alcohol content
  • Eat before or while you are drinking
  • Never drink and drive
  • Be a responsible host
  • Talk to your kids about alcohol
  • Limit your drinking to recommended safe levels
  • Have at least two alcohol-free days each week
  • Seek help if you feel your drinking is becoming a problem.

A useful way to learn about number of standard drinks to lower your risk of alcohol related harm is this chart from the Health Promotion Agency


What is a standard drink?

A standard drink = 10 grams of alcohol. This is how much alcohol is typically found in:

  • 330 ml can of beer
  • 100 ml of wine
  • 30ml straight spirits.

When not to drink alcohol

It's advisable not to drink if you:

  • are pregnant or planning to get pregnant
  • are on medication that interacts with alcohol
  • have a condition made worse by drinking alcohol
  • feel unwell, depressed, tired or cold as alcohol could make things worse
  • are about to operate machinery or a vehicle or do anything that is risky or requires skill.

Effects of alcohol on your body

 Body part  Immediate effects Long-term alcohol use can cause:
Blood and immune system   Anaemia
Higher chance of contracting infections such as: HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, tuberculosis
Bones and muscles  Acute injuries Muscle weakness, gout
Brain and nervous system Impaired concentration/attention, blackouts/memory loss, impaired consciousness/coma Brain damage (Wernicke’s encephalopathy, Korsakoff’s dementia, etc) nerve damage, epilepsy, sleep disturbances, stroke
Breasts (in women)   Breast cancer
Eyes Blurred/double vision Decreased vision
Heart and blood pressure Increased heart rate. Irregular heart rate Coronary heart disease, hypertension, heart failure due to cardiomyopathy, irregular heartbeat
Intestines   Bowel cancer
Kidneys and fluid balance Dehydration, depleted salts and minerals  
Liver   Alcoholic liver disease (fatty liver, hepatitis, cirrhosis) liver cancer
Lungs Slowed rate and depth of breathing, pneumonia/bronchitis Pneumonia
Mental health Mood and personality changes, aggression/antisocial behaviour, suicide and self-harm Addiction/dependence, mood disorders, withdrawal symptoms
Mouth and throat  Slurred/confused speech Cancer of mouth, voicebox and throat
Pancreas Pancreatitis,  hypoglycaemia Acute and chronic pancreatitis
Sexual health Unsafe sex/STI/sexual assault, unplanned pregnancy  Impotence, infertility, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (in children born to women who drink while pregnant), premature birth/low birth weight (in babies born to women who drink while pregnant)
Skin and fat   Malnutrition
Stomach and food pipe (oesophagus) Nausea, vomiting, heartburn, gastritis Cancer of oesophagus, chronic gastritis
Whole body Injuries, death Premature death


Recognise when you have a problem

When your drinking could be causing you harm or affecting your life (relationships, work, personality etc)

  • Learn about how to recognise an addiction.
  • If you think you have an addiction or problem with your drinking, seek help from someone you trust or call a crisis line.

Cut down or stop

  • Drinking in moderation: some people who drink too much may be able to simply cut down, this is called drinking in moderation. If you try and find it hard to stop once you start drinking, you should try to quit drinking completely.
  • Stop drinking: just like smoking, alcohol can cause physical dependence or addiction and some people cannot cut down. If this is you, then you need to abstain or quit drinking completely before it ruins your life. There are lots of groups keen to help you with the resources, moral support and motivation to achieve this.

Learn to handle stress

  • learn tips to help manage peer pressure
  • find ways to handle stress that don’t involve alcohol (eg, going to the gym, walking the dog, talking to a friend, relaxation techniques)
  • plan ahead for social situations where you might be tempted to drink
  • learn about problem drinking and addiction
  • seek out a support person who will listen, motivate you, and help keep you safe.

Get help

There's a number of organisations and people who can help you get help with alcohol and drinking for either yourself or a loved one.

What is the treatment for problem drinking?

Treatments for alcohol problems may include:

  • medical detox (detoxification) may be needed for withdrawal symptoms in some people
  • treatment of other medical conditions
  • counselling
  • peer support, eg, groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous
  • stress management
  • self-help measures as above.

Learn more

Say Yeah, Nah
Alcohol & drugs section Ministry of Health (NZ), 2014 
Alcohol use - data and stats Ministry of Health (NZ), 2012
Concerned about someone’s drinking? Health Promotion Agency, 2012
Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Health Promotion Agency
Alcohol – The body & health effects Health Promotion Agency
A guide to standard drinks Health Promotion Agency
Can you pour a standard drink? Health Promotion Agency
Community treatment services Ministry of Health, NZ, 2017
Start Your Recovery US, 2018


New Zealand health survey 2017/18 – alcohol use  Alcohol Healthwatch, NZ, 2018

Credits: Health Promotion Agency websites, Ministry of Health. Updated by Health Navigator NZ Feb 2014. Reviewed By: Health Navigator Editorial Team Last reviewed: 21 Mar 2015