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Most of the time when people talk about drugs, they think of illegal ones like cannabis and ecstasy. But the most used and abused drug is one that is legal for people over 18 - alcohol.
Alcohol is legal to buy in South Australia if you are over 18. Our society gives the message that alcohol is acceptable. In fact, young people are subjected to hundreds of ads promoting alcohol every year. There is even evidence to say that a small amount of alcohol every day can be good for an adult.
Despite this, alcohol abuse is a major problem in Australia.
It's best not to drink if you're:
- under 15 years of age
- taking other drugs or medicine (unless the doctor says it's OK)
- have conditions like liver disease, eg. hepatitis B or C
- intend to drive or use machinery
- feeling depressed
- doing something risky (say rock climbing or swimming on your own).
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) released guidelines about drinking alcohol when under 18 years in 2009:
'...children under 15 years of age are at the greatest risk of harm from drinking and that for this group, not drinking alcohol is especially important.'
'For young people aged 15-17 years, the safest option is to delay the initiation of drinking for as long as possible.'
NHMRC 'Australian Guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol' February 2009 Guidelines
Australian Government, Department of Health and Aging 'Alcohol and your kids: a guide for parents and carers'
There are different kinds of alcohol. The one people drink is called ethyl alcohol or ethanol. It is made by fermenting different ingredients. Fermenting is when yeast and water act on the sugar in certain ingredients, turning it into alcohol.
- Grain makes whisky and beer
- Potatoes make vodka
- Grapes make wine and brandy
- Apples make cider
- Honey makes mead
- Sugar makes rum.
young people drink alcohol?
They might be curious, want to be one of the group, or maybe get pressured into doing it. Some young people have told us they drink because "it makes me feel older" and "it gives me an image among peers" and simply "to try it out".
Some people drink when they go to parties and nightclubs, as part of socialising and relaxing with friends.
The young person might want to get something out of drinking, like being able to sleep or to forget things.
Some people need to drink every day just to get through the day, because they are addicted to alcohol.
to alcohol in the body?
When a person drinks alcohol it goes into the stomach and small intestine.
- From there it passes through the stomach and small intestine walls into the bloodstream.
- The blood passes through the liver, which slowly removes the alcohol from the blood.
- The blood takes the alcohol to the brain. Messages from the brain then become foggy and the body slows down and becomes uncoordinated.
The lifetime risk of harm from drinking alcohol increases with the amount consumed.
For healthy men and women, drinking no more than 2 standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.
NHMRC Australian Guidelines 2009
A standard drink has about 10 grams of pure alcohol in it. Some examples of a standard drink are:
- a nip of spirits (30 mls)
- 100 ml or a small glass of wine (some larger wine glasses can hold up to 200 mls which is 2 standard drinks!)
- 285 ml of beer (so a regular stubby or can (375 ml) has about 1.5 standard drinks in it; a larger bottle (750 ml) can have nearly 3 standard drinks in it!)
- 425 ml of light beer
- 60 ml of fortified wine (drinks such as port)
- A 750 ml bottle of wine at 12% alcohol is about 7 standard drinks (this depends on how strong the wine is or the percentage of alcohol - see the label).
- A 750 ml bottle of spirits is equal to about 24 standard drinks
- A bottle of alcoholic soft drink is about 1.6 standard drinks
- A can of mixed drink (alcohol and soft drink) is about 1.8 standard drink.
Check the bottle label to find out how many standard drinks are in it before you have a drink.
Alcopops, alcoholic sodas, or premixed drinks are often advertised with young people in mind. There are new brands on the market all the time. These drinks are usually about 1.5 standard drinks, but some have much higher levels of alcohol. Check the bottle before you drink one.
If you stay with the recommended amounts, you still run some risks but the risks are lower.
an alcohol problem?
It is hard to say exactly what and 'alcohol problem' is. However, most people say it's when drinking alcohol causes problems in that person's life and the lives of their family and friends.
Some of the problems could be things like:
- drinking leading to arguments and fights
- being drunk or hung-over
- problems at work like being late, not turning up for work, and causing accidents at work because of being drunk or hung-over
- being in road accidents because of being drunk or hung-over
- money worries because of the amount spent on alcohol
- being arrested for drink-driving, having drink-driving fines to pay, loss of driver's licence, and going to jail
- health problems - alcohol can be pretty rough on the body (see long-term risks)
- becoming dependent on alcohol (sometimes called alcoholism)
- drinking more and more alcohol to feel the effects.
- drinking making it harder to resist smoking (if you are worried about smoking, have a look at the topics 'Cigarettes and Smoking' and 'Passive smoking'.
"At 12 years old I started drinking alcohol. I was drinking daily by the time I was 15. I drank to forget about everything. My family had booted me into a foster home and I felt rejected and lonely. Alcohol made me feel like nothing mattered. The last bad night I had, I woke up the next day in a sobering-up unit to find out I had done $1,000 property damage and had assaulted two people, one of whom was a woman. This is when I realised it had gone too far. When I realised I did something about it. By doing something about it, I have changed my life from feeling 100% hopeless to 98% the other way around."
- Keith, 23 years
Binge drinking is when a person drinks huge amounts every now and then and gets right out of control. There are two kinds of binge drinking - one is when the person drinks a large amount in several hours, the other is when a person drinks a lot over several days or weeks. The second type is more harmful to the body.
There are risks with binge drinking. Some of these are the same as for short-term risks of drinking alcohol listed below.
Some of the most frightening risks of binge drinking are:
- dying from an extremely high amount of alcohol
- car accidents
- getting involved in dangerous behaviours.
- feeling sick
- getting into fights or arguments
- missing work
- making poor decisions
- losing balance or feeling dizzy
- feeling depressed
- getting sleepy
- passing out
- having unsafe sex.
The person may believe she is fine and doing things normally, but in fact she is not fine at all.
Regularly drinking large amounts can do heavy damage to the body and to the drinker's social life and relationships. In fact, alcohol is the second largest cause of death in Australia due to substance abuse, after tobacco. Some of the risks are:
- liver damage
- stomach ulcers
- heart damage
- high blood pressure
- infertility and stopping of periods among women
- in men, the loss of the ability to get an erection
- loss of memory
- not being able to concentrate or think clearly
- brain damage
- weight problems due to not eating well
- missing work - maybe getting fired
- arguments with friends
- family conflict and breakdown
- being broke because of spending money on alcohol
- being moody
- feeling anxious or nervy
- losing feeling in the hands and feet.
Have a look at 'How does alcohol affect driving?' from the Australian Drug Foundation.
Drinking when pregnant can cause miscarriage, and increase the risk of brain damage and slow growth for the unborn baby. Binge drinking is the most harmful kind of drinking for the mother of an unborn baby. It's best not to drink at all while pregnant as safe drinking levels are not known. The biggest problem may be women not eating well because they are drinking and not getting enough good food to support the baby's development properly.
No alcohol at all is safest for the baby. See 'Alcohol - effects on unborn children'.
ever good for your health?
There have been some studies done that found that a very small amount of alcohol (less than 1 standard drink for women, less than 1 to 2 for men) may reduce the risk of heart and circulation problems and may help avoid gallstones. However, drinking too much alcohol causes much more harm to your body and your social life than you gain.
you reduce the risks?
We've already talked about some of the reasons that people drink. Social pressure can be one reason. Here are some tips to help keep your drinking under control in a social situation:
- Eat before drinking.
- Have a glass of water or soft drink to quench your thirst before having the first alcoholic drink.
- Decide how many drinks you'll have before going out, and stick to it.
- Count your drinks.
- Drink water or other non-alcoholic drinks in between drinks.
- Eat while you're drinking - but not salty foods, as they make you drink more.
- Don't try to keep up with other drinkers.
- Try low-alcohol drinks.
- Try non-alcoholic drinks or non-alcoholic cocktails
- Know when you've had enough and say so.
- Don't swim or drive or use machinery when you've been drinking.
- Only get in a car with sober drivers - decide who'll be 'sober-chauffeur' or the designated driver before you go out.
- Don't let other people top up your drinks - and finish one before starting another.
- Don't put alcohol or drugs in other people's drinks or leave your drink where this can happen to you. Have a look at Drink spiking.
- Have regular alcohol-free days.
If you're worried about your drinking, you could ask for help from a drug and alcohol counsellor. See Resources below.
Depending on where you live, there are different laws about drinking. You need to check the law where you live.
For example, some of the important laws in South Australia are:
- If you're on 'L' plates or 'P' plates, you can't drink AT ALL before driving.
- It's against the law to drive over the prescribed blood alcohol level (0.05% in South Australia)
- It's against the law to sell alcohol to a person under 18 years of age.
- It's against the law for people under 18 years of age to be drinking alcohol in a public place.
worried about someone else's drinking?
- If you're having a party, make sure you have some low-alcohol and no-alcohol drinks, use small glasses and have food available.
- Let people know if there is alcohol in a drink such as punch or fruit cup, and let them fill their own glasses.
- If they've drunk too much, don't let them drive - either call them a cab, ask a non-drinker to give them a lift home, or give them a bed for the night.
- It's important to look after yourself.
- You need to look after yourself first to give yourself the energy to cope with the problem.
- Make the time to get away from the person. You'll need the break. This could be by doing things with friends or joining a group or club.
- Get support for yourself. This could be from a friend or family member, or you might want to contact a counsellor at your local health service or join a self-help group.
- Stop protecting the drinker.
- Don't make excuses for them, or apologise for them, or do things for them that they should do.
- If any changes are to happen, drinkers need to come to realise it is their problem.
- While they are being protected, it makes it easier to go on drinking.
- Talk with the drinker.
- This won't be easy. He or she might get angry or deny the problem or promise to change but not follow through.
- When you talk to him or her it would be best to choose the time when you're both sober and calm, try and stay calm and logical, stick to the point and don't get drawn into other arguments.
- Let them know you love them but not the drinking behaviour.
- Things that will not be helpful are to talk about it when the person is drinking, or getting angry and blasting the person with every thing at once or making false threats.
If you're worried about your own drinking?
There can be underlying problems and pressures contributing to you drinking. A trained counsellor may be able to help you work these things out. Some counsellors can teach you how to change your behaviour or the thoughts that keep you in patterns of problem drinking.
There are some drugs that may be of help. There are also programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. In choosing the best person to help you to make changes, you have choices, rights and responsibilities.
Note: This is a good opportunity to get some practical suggestions and information about health and illness. It is important to see your doctor or health professional for information specific to a health concern you may have about yourself.
- Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia (education, clinics) - Tel: (08) 8274 3333.
- Alcohol and Drug Information Service 1300 13 13 40, a 24 hour confidential telephone counselling and information.
- The Youth Health Service
- Central: 57 Hyde St, Adelaide
- South: 50a Beach Rd, Christies Beach
- North: 6 Gillingham Rd, Elizabeth
- Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council (SA) Inc. - Tel: (08) 8351 9031.
- Al'Anon/Alteen (for families of people with a drinking problem)
- telephone (08) 8231 2959 or (08) 8212 6824.
Australian Government, Department of Health and Aging 'Alcohol for kids: a guide for parents and carers'
Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia (DASSA).
Department of Health (South Australia). 'Population Health and Drug Strategies'. Public Health Bulletin, Edition 2, 2005:
National Drug Strategy 'The costs of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug abuse to Australian society in 2004/05 (2008) Click here
National Health and Medical Research Council 'Australian Guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol' February 2009 Guidelines
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).