What it is

Alcohol is the most commonly used psychoactive drug in New Zealand. 'Psychoactive' means it has a mind altering effect when taken. Although alcohol use is widely accepted, it does have damaging effects to both the individual and wider community. More deaths and injuries involve alcohol than any other drug.

What it does

Alcohol is a depressant drug, meaning it slows down the messages travelling around the central nervous system. The initial effects of alcohol include relaxation and slower reactions. As a person drinks more, they become less inhibited, their moods might swing, their speech might slur, they could feel dizzy. If excessive amounts of alcohol are drunk, it can cause vomiting and unconsciousness. Alcohol poisoning can be fatal.

It can be dangerous to drive the morning after a night of heavy drinking as you can’t be sure all the alcohol has left your system, and you could still be drunk.

Myths and legends

You need to drink to have a good time

Socialising often revolves around alcohol in New Zealand, but being sober doesn’t automatically mean not having fun. If you have trouble having fun without a drink it might be an indication you have a problem. Go to or call the Alcohol Drug Helpline to talk about this.


Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol over a short period of time is called 'binge drinking'. This can cause severe drunkenness, vomiting, shakiness, headaches and bad hangovers. Binge drinkers are at risk of alcohol poisoning, which can lead to coma or even death.

Heavy or regular drinkers also risk long-term damage to their liver, brain, lungs, heart and stomach, as well as an increased risk of cancer.
People can do things they later regret when drunk. Unplanned or unwanted sex while intoxicated can result in sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies.

Alcohol is commonly associated with crime and domestic violence so drinking can also harm the alcohol user's family, friends and community.

Frequent and heavy drinkers are also at risk of becoming dependent on alcohol.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may occur if a person suddenly stops drinking after a period of regular drinking. When someone is dependent on alcohol, they become used to functioning with alcohol in their system.

Not everyone who is dependent on alcohol will experience all the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, but it can be dangerous - especially if that person has been a chronic drinker. Some people choose to go to a supervised detox centre so they can get support during their withdrawal in a safe environment.

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal range in severity. Some symptoms are:

  • nervousness
  • fatigue
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • insomnia
  • hand shakes
  • clammy skin
  • vomiting

More severe symptoms include:

  • confusion and hallucinations (known as 'delirium tremors' or 'the DTs)
  • convulsions
  • black outs

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Reducing the Harm

The New Zealand Drug Foundation’s message is clear: no drug use is the safest drug use. However, we know there will be occasions when people ignore warnings and use drugs in a dangerous manner. To help keep communities safe, here is some information about proven methods of drug harm reduction.

How much is too much?

It's hard to say because there are many factors that influence the effects of alcohol, such as body weight, body type, gender, personality and the environment in which someone drinks.

The following Guidelines from the Health Promotion Agency suggest upper limits.

For men:

  • an average of no more than three standard drinks a day, and no more than fifteen standard drinks over a week
  • no more than five standard drinks on any one occasion
  • at least two alcohol-free days every week.

For women:

  • an average of no more than two standard drinks a day, and no more than ten standard drinks over a week
  • no more than four standard drinks on any one occasion
  • at least two alcohol-free days every week.

Standard drinks

A standard drink measures the amount of pure alcohol in one drink. One standard drink contains about 10 grams of alcohol. This is about the equivalent of a can of beer (330ml), a glass of wine (100ml) or a single shot of spirits (30ml). Many bars serve double shots unless requested otherwise.

For additional information