Is my drinking harmful?

Drinking alcohol is part of many New Zealanders’ lives. What many of us don’t realise is how harmful even ‘low-risk’ drinking can be. The following advice is designed to help you make informed choices about drinking and reduce your risk of alcohol-related harm.

Key points about harm called by alcohol

  1. The level of alcohol consumption considered by many to be relatively safe a few years ago has now been shown to be associated with an increased risk of cancer, heart disease and many other life-threatening diseases.
  2. Other harms from alcohol include injuries, alcohol poisoning, alcohol dependence, road trauma, assaults and negative impacts on children and families.
  3. No level of drinking is completely without risk. The true number of people experiencing negative health outcomes due to drinking is likely to be higher than reported.
  4. If you choose to drink, you can reduce your long-term health risks by drinking no more than 2 standard drinks a day for women or 3 standard drinks a day for men, with at least 2 alcohol-free days a week. See low-risk drinking.
  5. If you are worried about your drinking, there is support available to help you to cut down or stop drinking.

What happens when I drink alcohol?

Alcohol is a chemical compound that is poisonous to the human body in large amounts, but generally tolerable in small amounts.

When you drink alcohol, it goes directly into your bloodstream where it is immediately sent all around your body.

As it reaches different parts of your body, alcohol slows down the work of your cells, especially in the brain. You can feel this happening.

When alcohol reaches the liver, it is broken down (metabolised) and cleared from your bloodstream. Your liver works hard but slowly, taking 1 to 2 hours to break down 1 standard drink. 

If you drink faster than your liver can cope, the alcohol stays in your system for longer and its effects are increased.

Learn more about the effects of alcohol on the body.

What harms can alcohol cause?

Alcohol can cause short-term and long-term harm to you and others.

Short-term risks of alcohol include:

  • accidents and injuries including vehicle collisions, requiring hospital treatment
  • unprotected sex leading to unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections
  • vomiting, passing out, hangovers and other signs of alcohol poisoning
  • black-outs and memory loss
  • violent behaviour leading to abuse, offending or assault.

People who binge drink (drink heavily over a short period of time) are more likely to behave recklessly and are at greater risk of being in an accident.

Alcohol increases your risk of developing serious health conditions including: 

  • heart disease, stroke, liver disease and pancreatitis
  • certain cancers including mouth, throat, oesophageal, breast and colorectal
  • dependent drinking (alcoholism). 

As well as causing serious health problems, long-term alcohol misuse can lead to social problems for some people, such as:

  • unemployment
  • relationship problems
  • domestic abuse
  • homelessness. 

Is my drinking ok?

The Health Promotion Agency’s Is Your Drinking Okay? test can help you find out more about your level of risk from your drinking. Just complete the questionnaire and it will automatically add up your score and tell you what it means. It's that easy! 

Take the test: Is Your Drinking Okay?

A range of factors can affect your level of risk, including the rate of drinking, your body type or genetic makeup, your gender, existing health problems and if you are young or an older person. Learn more about low-risk drinking, when not to drink alcohol and advice for parents.

How can I ease up on my drinking?

When you drink too much it often causes a number of problems for your family, relationships and friends. The following advice is to help you ease up on your drinking so that you can drink in a way that doesn't cause harm to yourself or others.

  1. Record your drinking: keep a diary of when, where and exactly how much you drink.
  2. Identify trouble spots: look at the situations where you drank too much and try to identify if there was a pattern to them. Are there particular people, places or emotions that trigger you to drink too much?
  3. Make a plan: Now you know when you are most likely to have a problem with your drinking, you can make a conscious effort to stop it happening. Answer these questions: How much do you plan to drink? How long do you intend to drink for? What can you do to help yourself stick to your plan? Who can help you stick to your plan?

Read more about How to ease up HPA, NZ

I want to quit drinking – what support is available?

If you or someone you know needs support and treatment to reduce their alcohol intake, a good place to start is to call the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797, visit the website, or free text 8681 for confidential advice.

Trained counsellors will answer your call or text 24 hours a day, any day. You can choose to talk with a Māori or Pasifika counsellor by calling the service's:

  • Māori line – 0800 787 798
  • Pasifika line – 0800 787 999

Discuss your drinking with your doctor, especially if you are pregnant and find it difficult to stop drinking.

Just like smoking, alcohol can cause physical dependence or addiction and some people cannot cut down. There are lots of groups keen to help you with the resources, moral support and motivation to achieve this. Ask your family and friends to support you too.

What treatment is available to help quit drinking?

Treatment for alcohol problems includes a range of activities, such as 12 step support groups, counselling services that provide one-hour counselling appointments, or residential programmes where you stay for several weeks.

Learn more by following the links below: 

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 June 2019. Reviewed By: Health Navigator Editorial Team Last reviewed: 21 Jun 2019