Drug A - Z


Alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol) is the ingredient found in beer, wine and spirits which causes drunkenness. Alcohol is formed when yeast ferments (breaks down without oxygen) the carbohydrates or sugars in different food e.g. wine is made from the sugar in grapes, beer from the sugar in malted barley (a type of grain), cider from the sugar in apples, vodka from the sugar in potatoes, beets or other plants.

Ethanol dissolves easily in water, so it can be rapidly absorbed throughout the body in the blood. Alcohol passes through the placenta to the unborn child and is also present in breast milk when a mother drinks.

Alcohol is the most widely used social drug in New Zealand. Alcohol is classed as a depressant. However, at low doses it acts as a mild stimulant. As concentrations in the bloodstream increase, stimulation gives way to sedation, stupor, coma and finally death.

The amount of alcohol consumed when drinking depends on how much alcohol is in s a particular type of drink and how many drinks you consume. The standard drinks measure is a simple way for you to work out how much alcohol you are drinking. It measures the amount of pure alcohol in a drink. One standard drink equals 10 grams of pure alcohol.

Standard Drinks – know how much alcohol you’re really drinking

The Standard Drinks measure is a simple way to work out how much alcohol you are drinking. All bottles of wine, beer and spirits, and all cans or casks now have standard drinks content on the label – so you can easily tell how many standard drinks there are in what you’re drinking.

What are Standard Drinks?

Standard Drinks measures the amount of pure alcohol you are drinking.

It’s not the amount of liquid you’re drinking that’s important – it’s the amount of alcohol.

Standard 2

… you are drinking approximately 10 grams of alcohol depending on the alcohol percentage. Each of these is a standard drink.

Standard Drinks measures the amount of alcohol, not the amount of liquid you’re drinking – because it’s the alcohol content that’s most important to track.

Because drinks have different amounts of alcohol in them, the number of standard drinks in each bottle, can or cask will be different.

For more information click here to download a copy of ‘The straight up guide to standard drinks’ or contact the Helpline and we will post you a copy.

Initially when you drink alcohol, you experience a feeling of pleasure and relaxation. The more you drink, the higher your blood alcohol level becomes, and your body’s reactions begin to slow down. You may experience slurred speech, inability to walk straight, and impaired judgement and co-ordination.

Alcohol can be dangerous in smaller amounts if it is used in combination with other drugs

There are recommended guidelines for low risk drinking. The more you drink over the recommended amount the more at risk you are. Some of the short-term effects on your health may include:

  • weight gain
  • mood and personality changes
  • drink-related accidents
  • feeling anxious
  • missing work due to hangovers, headaches
  • impotence
  • high blood pressure
  • memory loss
  • confusion, disorganisation

Other, long-term effects may include;

  • major damage to the brain, the central nervous system, digestive system, heart and liver
  • increased risk of some forms of cancer
  • psychiatric problems
  • prone to depression

Click here to check if your drinking is OK.

Hurting others or being hurt your self

Binge drinking can lead people to be more likely to hurt others round them or to do things they wouldn’t if they were not intoxicated. Examples include:

  • Domestic violence and abuse
  • Assault
  • Other criminal offending
  • Relationship problems
  • Injuries
  • Regretted sexual encounters and unsafe sex.
  • Suicide

An intoxicated person is also more vulnerable to becoming a victim of violence. It is much harder to keep yourself safe.


Psychological dependence occurs when using a drug becomes more important than other activities in a person’s life. Physical dependence upon a drug occurs when a person’s body is used to functioning with the drug present in the system. Alcohol dependence affects physical and mental health, and causes problems with family, friends, and work. It is characterized by a mental and/or physical need to consume alcohol in order to prevent the pains of withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms occur when a person dependent on a drug stops using it or significantly cuts down the amount they are using. people who have been drinking for a long period of time, or drinking frequently, or drink heavily when they do drink, will experience some form of withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking suddenly.

If you are concerned that you or someone you care about may be dependent on alcohol call the Alcohol Drug Helpline for confidential professional help.

Impact on the unborn child or breast feeding baby

Alcohol has the potential to cause harm to the unborn child and also harm to the baby whilst breastfeeding. Due to this, it is recommended to not use any level of alcohol during pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding.

Alcohol Poisoning

Drinking significantly more than the body can metabolize and eliminate often results in alcohol poisoning, which in some instances is fatal. Binge drinking (consuming more than the recommended guidelines at one sitting) can also lead to alcohol poisoning. Nausea and vomiting are two of the first alcohol poisoning symptoms a person with an alcohol overdose will experience. If someone you know is unconscious due to drinking put them in the recovery position and call an ambulance.

Drink Driving

It is illegal to drive a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol level over the legal limit. Current legal limits are:

  • Drivers aged 20 years and over must not drive if:
    • the amount of alcohol in their breath is more than 250 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath.
    • the amount of alcohol in their blood is more than 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood.
  • For drivers under the age of 20 years, the limit is zero.

Drink-driving is considered a serious offence and carries tough penalties, especially for repeat offenders.

Click here for more information on the law regarding alcohol limits for driving.


Supplying alcohol to minors

In New Zealand, it is illegal for;

  • anyone under 18 years old to purchase alcohol, and
  • It is illegal to supply alcohol to someone under the age of 18 years unless:
    • the person supplying the alcohol is the parent or legal guardian and the alcohol is supplied in a responsible manner, or
    • the person supplying alcohol has the express consent of the young person’s parent or legal guardian and the alcohol is supplied in a responsible manner.

The Health Promotion Agency has designed alcohol drinking advice to help you make an informed choice and help keep your risk of alcohol-related accidents, injuries, diseases and death low.

Low- risk is not, however, no-risk. Even when drinking within the low-risk limits, 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.

How much?

Reduce your long-term health risks by drinking no more than:

  • two standard drinks a day for women and no more than 10 standard drinks a week
  • three standard drinks a day for men and no more than 15 standard drinks a week

AND at least two alcohol-free days every week.

Reduce your risk of injury on a single occasion of drinking by drinking no more than:

  • four standard drinks for women on any single occasion
  • five standard drinks for men on any single occasion

 Advice for pregnant women or those planning to get pregnant

  • no alcohol. There is no known safe level of alcohol use at any stage of pregnancy.

Advice for parents of children and young people under 18 years

For children and young people under 18 years, not drinking alcohol is the safest option.

  • Those under 15 years of age are at the greatest risk of harm from drinking alcohol and not drinking in this age group is especially important.

For young people aged 15 to 17 years, the safest option is to delay drinking for as long as possible. If 15 to 17 year olds do drink alcohol, they should be supervised, drink infrequently and at levels usually below and never exceeding the adult (18 years and over) daily limits.

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.

Tips for low-risk drinking

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.