According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, in 2007, alcohol is the most widely used drug in Australia.
From 1996–2005, an estimated 32,696 Australians aged over 15 years and older died from alcohol-related injury and disease caused by risky/high risk drinking.
For more statistics about the use of alcohol in Australia, visit our Quick statistics page.
Alcohol and the law
There are laws that govern how alcohol may be used. These laws may differ, depending on the state, territory or local area. For example, in some areas local by-laws make it illegal to drink alcohol in public places such as beaches, parks and streets.
Read more about alcohol and Australian law.
For legal advice specific to your situation contact a legal aid service in your state or territory.
National drug policy
Australia’s national drug policy is based on harm minimisation. Strategies to minimise harm include encouraging people to avoid using a drug, through to helping people to reduce the risk of harm if they do use a drug. It aims to reduce all types of drug-related harm to both the individual and the community.
This information has been adapted from the pamphlet How Drugs Affect You: Alcohol,, produced by the Australian Drug Foundation. For single copies of this pamphlet, contact DrugInfo (Victoria only). Multiple copies are available from the ADF Bookshop.
What is alcohol?
Alcohol is a liquid produced by fermentation. Further processing produces alcoholic drinks such as beer, wine, cider and spirits.
Alcohol is a depressant drug. This means that it slows down the activity of the central nervous system and the messages going between the brain and the body. Depressant drugs do not necessarily make a person feel depressed.
Booze, grog, piss.
What does it look like?
Pure alcohol has no colour. It has a very strong taste that feels like a burning sensation. Alcoholic drinks vary in colour and taste depending on their ingredients and how they are made.
Why is it used?
In Australia, alcohol is used for social and cultural reasons. Many Australians drink alcohol with meals, to celebrate special occasions and to help them relax and to have fun.
Effects of alcohol
The effects of any drug (including alcohol) vary from person to person. How alcohol affects a person depends on many things including their size, weight and health, also whether the person is used to it and whether other drugs are taken. The effects of any drug also depend on the amount taken.
- After a few drinks —more relaxed, reduced concentration and slower reflexes.
- A few more drinks —lowered inhibitions, more confidence, reduced coordination, slurred speech, intense mood (sad, happy, angry).
- Still more drinks —confusion, blurred vision, poor muscle control.
- More still —nausea, vomiting, sleep.
- Even more —possibly coma or death.
- There is no safe level of alcohol use. Use of alcohol or other drugs always carries some risk—even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It is important to be careful when taking any type of drug including alcohol.
The effects of alcohol on the brain occur within five minutes of alcohol being drunk.
Low to moderate doses
Some of the effects that may be experienced after drinking alcohol include:
* feeling relaxed
* mild euphoria
* reduced coordination and slower reflexes
* lowered inhibitions
* increased confidence
* inappropriate sexual or violent behaviour
* blurred vision
* slurred speech
* flushed appearance
When someone drinks heavily over a short period with the intention of becoming drunk, it is sometimes referred to as "binge drinking"
Binge drinking is harmful because it results in immediate and severe drunkenness.
As well as the health risks, it can lead people to take unnecessary risks and put themselves and others in danger.
Some common effects of binge drinking are:
When someone drinks heavily, they may experience a range of symptoms the following day. These symptoms are called a hangover and may include:
- sensitivity to light and sound
- reduced appetite
- increased heart rate and blood pressure
- dehydration (dry mouth, extreme thirst, dry eyes)
- trouble concentrating
- difficulty sleeping.
Sobering up takes time. The liver gets rid of about one standard drink an hour. Cold showers, exercise, black coffee, mints, fresh air or vomiting will not speed up the process. Someone who drinks a lot at night, may still be affected by alcohol the following day.
Standard Drink Guide
One drink isn't always one drink! Different types of alcoholic beverages contain different amounts of alcohol. Hence, it is important to know what a Standard Drink is.
Below is a table of Standard Drinks. Although they all differ in size, a Standard Drink has about 10 grams of alcohol. Labels on alcoholic drink containers state the number of Standard Drinks in the container.
Check the label to find out how many Standard Drinks are in a bottle or can. The Standard Drinks shown on this table are calculated to one decimal place.
If you get tricky numbers like 1.4 or 0.8 Standard Drinks, just round them to 1.5 and 1 to make it easier to count. Some people put the bottle caps or coasters in their pockets as a way of to help them count.
Some of the long-term effects of drinking more than the recommended guidelines include:
Some of the effects include:
* brain injury
* loss of memory
* high blood pressure
* irregular pulse
* enlarged heart
* greater chance of infections, including tuberculosis
* inflamed lining
* severe swelling and pain.
Some of the effects include:
* liver cancer
* inflammation causing pain
* changes in red blood cells
* loss of muscle tissue
* tingling and loss of sensation in hands and feet
* bruising (1)
(1) males: impotence, shrinking of testicles, damaged/reduced sperm.
(1) females: greater risk of gynaecological problems, damage to foetus if pregnant.
Other effects of alcohol use
Taking alcohol with other drugs
The effects of mixing alcohol with other drugs, including over-the-counter or prescribed medications, can be unpredictable and dangerous. Always read the instructions or seek advice from a health professional before mixing alcohol with medications.
- Mixing alcohol with other depressant drugs such as benzodiazepines or GHB can cause a person’s breathing and heart rate to decrease to dangerous levels and increase the risk of overdose. Drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis together can increase the chances the unpleasant effects, including nausea, vomiting and feelings of panic, anxiety and paranoia.
- Combining alcohol with stimulant drugs places the body under great stress and can mask some of the effects of alcohol. For example, if a person combines alcohol with energy drinks that contain caffeine (a stimulant) they will still be affected by the alcohol but may not feel as relaxed or sleepy. They may feel more confident, take more risks and increase the chances of experiencing alcohol-related harm such as drinking too much or being injured in a fight or accident.
All areas of a person’s life can be affected by alcohol use.
- Disagreements and frustration over alcohol use can cause family arguments and affect personal relationships.
- Legal and health problems can also add to the strain on personal, financial and work relationships.
Men and women
At low levels of drinking there is little difference between men and women. However, at higher levels of drinking:
- women are at a greater risk of developing an alcohol-related disease such as cancers, diabetes and obesity
- men are at a greater risk of an alcohol-related injury such as a car accident, assault and violence.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Read about the effects of alcohol on pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Read about the effects of alcohol on driving.
Alcohol and the workplace
Read about the effects of alcohol in the workplace.
People who drink heavily on a regular basis may become dependent on alcohol. They may also develop a tolerance to it, which means they need to drink larger amounts of alcohol to get the same effect.
Dependence on alcohol can be physical, psychological, or both. People who are dependent on alcohol crave alcohol and find it very difficult to stop using it. People who are psychologically dependent on alcohol may find they feel an urge to use it when they are in specific surroundings or socialising with friends. Physical dependence occurs when a person’s body adapts to alcohol and gets used to functioning with it present.
If a dependent person stops drinking alcohol, they may have withdrawal symptoms because their body has to get used to functioning without alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms usually start about 4–12 hours after the last drink and can continue for about 4–5 days. These symptoms include sweating, tremors, nausea and anxiety.
Withdrawal from alcohol carries the risk of seizures or fits. Medical assistance may be required to help the person get through withdrawal safely.
In Australia, there are many different types of treatments for drug problems. Some aim to help a person to stop using a drug, while others aim to reduce the risks and harm related to their drug use. Find out more about treatment.
What to do if you are concerned about someone’s alcohol use
If you are concerned about someone’s alcohol use, there is help available. Contact the alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory.
What to do in a crisis
Always call triple zero (000) if an overdose is known or suspected—and remember that paramedics are not obliged to involve the police.
If someone overdoses or has an adverse reaction while drinking alcohol, it is very important that they receive professional help as soon as possible. A quick response can save their life.
Visit the Better Health Channel to read St John Ambulance’s advice on drug overdose.
Source: Adapted from 'DRUG INFO'