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Smart drinking

According to the 2007 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey of household drug use, almost 90 percent of Australians will have had at least one alcoholic drink in the past year. As Australia's most widely-used recreational drug, alcohol is likely to be a common part of your social and daily lives.

How much you decide to drink is up to you. There’s no level of drinking alcohol that’s guaranteed risk-free. However, the Australian guidelines to reducing health risk from drinking alcohol can help you make informed choices about how much you can responsibly drink while looking after your health and safety. The guidelines are based on up-to-date knowledge of alcohol’s health effects to help determine what can be considered low-risk drinking.

A summary of the Guidelines

The National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines recommend:

1. As a healthy man or woman, you should drink no more than two standard drinks on any given day to reduce your lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related illness or injury.

The guidelines recommend this limit because research shows that your lifetime risk of injury and illness due to alcohol use increases with the amount of alcohol you drink.

If you drink too much, you run the risk of:

  • immediate health effects such as headaches, feeling sick and vomiting, dehydration, dizziness and passing out. You can also do injury to yourself and to others as a result of traffic accidents, falls or physical or sexual assault
  • developing long term health conditions such as high blood pressure, stroke, liver disease, osteoporosis, mental health problems, sexual health problems, brain injury, and some cancers.

For more information, check out our health page on the risks of drinking too much alcohol.

2. As a healthy man or woman, you should drink no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion to reduce your risk of alcohol-related injury or illness.

The guidelines recommend this limit because research shows that your risk of alcohol-related injury on a single occasion of drinking increases with the amount of alcohol you drink.

Apart from running the risk of being injured or killed due to drink driving, by drinking more than the recommended amount in a single occasion (also known as ‘binge drinking’), other consequences may include:

  • problems at school, work or home caused by hangovers
  • losing valuable items such as wallets and mobile phones
  • financial problems due to reckless spending on alcohol or while under the influence of alcohol, or due to time off work to recover from your drinking.

For more information, check out our health page on what is binge drinking is and tips on how to have a safe night out.

3. If you are under 18, your best and safest option is to not drink alcohol at all.

Alcohol use can harm the brain, causing problems with memory, thinking and physical co-ordination. Research suggests that adolescent brains are still developing and are more easily harmed by alcohol. Children who start drinking under the age of 15 are also five times more likely to abuse alcohol than people who start drinking after the age of 21. The guidelines recommend that children under the age of 15 should avoid alcohol. For teenagers aged 15–17, it’s safest to delay drinking for as long as possible.

4. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, your best and safest option is to not drink alcohol.

There is evidence to suggest that alcohol consumed by the mother enters the bloodstream of the developing baby. It’s not clear if there’s any safe level of drinking in pregnancy — or whether any particular stage of pregnancy is more vulnerable to alcohol’s effects, which may include a range of birth defects and growth and developmental problems in the fetus. The advice from the World Health Organization is that the safest option is not to drink at all.

For breastfeeding mothers, it’s safest not to drink alcohol during this time. If you choose to drink, the advice is:

  • Try to avoid alcohol in the first month after your baby is born until breastfeeding is well-established
  • After that, limit alcohol intake to no more than two standard drinks a day.

What’s a standard drink?

As the Australian guidelines recommend you drink no more than two standard drinks a day or four standard drinks in a single occasion, it’s important for you to understand what a standard drink is. Simply, a standard drink contains 10g of alcohol. However, 10g can translate into different size drinks depending on the type of alcohol. Below is a table with some common examples to help you work out how many standard drinks you may really be drinking.

Type of alcohol Size Number of standard drinks
A can or stubbie of low-strength beer 375ml 0.8
A can or stubbie of mid-strength beer 375ml 1
A can or stubbie of full-strength beer 375ml 1.4
A glass of red wine (13.5% alcohol) 100ml 1
A nip of spirits (about 40% alcohol) 30ml 1
A can of ready-to-drink or pre-mixed spirits (about 5% alcohol) 330–375ml 1.2–1.5
A can of high-strength, ready-to-drink or pre-mixed spirits (about 7% alcohol) 330–375ml 1.8–2.1

For more standard drink measurements, see the Further Information section.

Tips for keeping track of your drinks

  • Remember that standard drinks aren’t always the same as serving sizes of drinks served in pubs, clubs or the drink you pour at home. For example, some wine glasses hold more than two standard drinks. The average size of a glass of wine poured in a restaurant is about 1.5 standard drinks
  • Get an idea of what standard drinks look like by pouring them — use a measuring jug to pour a 100ml glass of wine or a 30ml measure of vodka, for instance
  • Reading the label on a bottle, can or cask tells you how many standard drinks it contains
  • Remember that a single cocktail can include as many as five or six standard drinks, depending on the recipe.

What’s a low-risk level of drinking?

  • For healthy adults over 18, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any one day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease and injury.
  • Sticking to less than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces your risk of alcohol related injury. Having four or more drinks, even once a week, increases your lifetime risk of alcohol-related injury by almost ten times.
  • You can lower the lifetime risk of alcohol-related disease or injury even more by reducing the number of times you drink — through regular alcohol-free days, for example.

What are other situations where it’s safest to avoid drinking alcohol?

There are some situations and activities where drinking increases the risk of harm to yourself — or someone else. Avoiding drinking is the safest option if you’re:

  • Involved in an activity that needs a lot of concentration and skill, eg driving, swimming and other water activities, snow sports, flying an aircraft or operating heavy machinery
  • Supervising others who are taking part in these activities
  • Supervising children.

Further information

National Health and Medical Research Council. Standard Drinks Guide www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/your_health/healthy/alcohol/std-drinks.pdf (PDF. 171Kb)

National Health and Medical Research Council: Alcohol guidelines to reducing health risks www.nhmrc.gov.au/your_health/healthy/alcohol/index.htm

Sources

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey. Canberra, ACT: AIHW. 2008 [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.aihw.gov.au/publications/index.cfm/title/10674

DrugInfo Clearinghouse. Alcohol. [online] Melbourne, VIC: Australian Drug Foundation. 2006. [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from: http://druginfo.adf.org.au/

National Alcohol Strategy. Standard Drinks Guide. [online] Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. c2002 [last updated Apr 2009, accessed 23 Aug 2010] Available from: www.health.gov.au/internet/alcohol/publishing.nsf/Content/drinksguide-cnt

National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. The Harmful Effects of Alcohol. [online] Kensington, NSW: University of NSW Faculty of Medicine. c2005 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from: http://ndarc.med.unsw.edu.au/

National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Guidelines: To Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. 2009 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/publications/synopses/ds10-alcohol.pdf(PDF 2.3Mb)

World Health Organization (WHO). Framework for alcohol policy in the WHO European Region. [online] Copenhagen, Denmark: WHO. 2006 [accessed 23 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/79396/E88335.pdf (PDF, 452Kb)

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Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals and to the best of their knowledge is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the recommendations or assessments and is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information, except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

Last published 31 October 2010