What harm can alcohol cause?

Alcohol is one of the most commonly used drugs in New Zealand. It is readily available and used in many settings for lots of different purposes and effects. However, there can be negative health and social consequences associated with its use.

The following advice is designed to help you make informed choices about drinking and reduce your risk of alcohol-related harm.

Key points

  1. Alcohol is a leading cause of preventable death and morbidity globally and in Aotearoa New Zealand.
  2. Harmful consequences associated with alcohol use include health conditions and injuries, hospital admissions, deaths, road accidents and assaults.
  3. Alcohol is a key driver of social and health inequities especially for Māori, young people and lower socio-economic communities. 
  4. No level of drinking is completely without risk. It's likely that more people experience negative health outcomes due to drinking than is reported.
  5. The level of alcohol consumption considered to be relatively safe a few years ago has since been found to be associated with an increased risk of cancer, heart disease and many other life-threatening diseases.
  6. If you choose to drink, you can reduce your risk of harm by drinking no more than 2 standard drinks a day for women or 3 standard drinks a day for men, with at least 2 alcohol-free days a week.
  7. If you are concerned about your drinking, there is support available to help you to cut down or stop drinking.

What harms can alcohol contribute to?

Alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol) is an addictive toxin and intoxicant, found in beer, wine and spirits. An addictive substance means that you find it hard to stop taking it once you have started. Toxin means it is poisonous to the human body in large amounts. Intoxicant means it causes intoxication or an altered state.

People respond to alcohol in individual ways, and the same amount of alcohol consumed can have varying effects on different people. Learn more about alcohol and its effect on your body.

Alcohol can cause short-term and long-term harm to you and others.

Short-term alcohol-related risks include:

  • accidents and injuries including vehicle collisions and falls
  • poor decision making that can result in things like unprotected sex, leading to unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections
  • alcohol poisoning, resulting in vomiting, passing out and hangovers
  • blackouts and memory loss
  • aggressive behaviour leading to violence, abuse, criminal offending or assault.

People who binge drink (drink heavily over a short period of time) are more likely to behave recklessly and are at greater risk of being in an accident.

Long-term alcohol-related risks include: 

  • increased risk of developing serious health conditions including heart disease, stroke, liver disease and pancreatitis, and certain cancers including mouth, throat, oesophageal, breast and colorectal. Alcohol is identified as a class 1 carcinogen (known to cause cancer) putting it in the same risk category as smoking and asbestos.
  • substance use disorders, characterised in part by withdrawal symptoms and an increase in tolerance
  • ongoing effects of alcohol-related accidents, injuries or assault
  • family, whānau and relationship difficulties
  • financial and/or employment and/or housing difficulties
  • an increase in likelihood or worsening of mental health symptoms, especially related to anxiety and depression.

How can I lower my drinking-related risks?

Low risk is not no risk. Even when drinking within 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 whether you are young or an older person.

You can reduce your risk of alcohol-related harm by following the Te Hiringa Hauora | Health Promotion Agency's low-risk drinking advice, which includes information on when it is safest not to drink. If you want to learn about young people and alcohol, see advice for parents.

Is my drinking okay?

The Te Hiringa Hauora | Health Promotion Agency’s Is Your Drinking Okay? test can help you find out more about your level of risk from your drinking. Just complete the questionnaire and it will automatically add up your score and tell you what it means. It's that easy! 

Take the test: Is your drinking okay?

How can I ease up on my drinking?

If your drinking is causing problems for you, your family/whānau or friends, you may want to consider easing up. The following strategies may help you ease up on your drinking so that you can drink in a way that reduces the chance or significance/severity of harm to yourself or others.

  1. Record your drinking: Keep a diary of when, where and exactly how much you drink.
  2. Identify trouble spots: Look at the situations where you drank too much and try to identify whether there was a pattern to them. Are there particular people, places or emotions that trigger you to drink too much?
  3. Make a plan: Now you know when your drinking is problematic, you can make a conscious effort to stop it happening. Answer these questions: How much do you plan to drink? How long do you intend to drink for? What can you do to help yourself stick to your plan? Who can help you stick to your plan?
  4. Get support: Talk to loved ones, friends or whānau about your plan. This way they can help and support you in settings where there is alcohol present.

Read more about How to ease up.

What support is available to cut down on drinking?

If you need support or treatment to reduce or stop your alcohol intake, a good place to start is to call the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797, visit the website, or free text 8681 for confidential advice.

Trained counsellors are there to answer your call or text 24 hours a day, any day. You can choose to talk with a Māori or Pasifika counsellor by calling these services:

  • Māori line – 0800 787 798
  • Pasifika line – 0800 787 999

Discuss your drinking with a medical practitioner, especially if you are pregnant, and finding it difficult to stop drinking. They can help with checking out your physical health and directing you to someone who can help you.

There are lots of groups keen to help you with the resources, moral support and motivation to achieve this. Ask your whānau and friends to support you too.

Treatment for alcohol problems includes a range of approaches, such as 12-step support groups, counselling services that have individual or group appointments, or residential programmes where you stay for several weeks. Learn more by following the links below:

Employee assistance programme (EAP) services can also help. They are accessed through your employer, but you do not have to explain why you want to use them.

Learn more and references

Alcohol Ministry of Health, NZ, 2019
Alcohol use data and stats Ministry of Health, NZ, 2017
Concerned about someone’s drinking? Health Promotion Agency, NZ, 2012
Low-risk alcohol drinking Health Promotion Agency, NZ
Alcohol – body effects Health Promotion Agency, NZ
A guide to standard drinks Health Promotion Agency, NZ
Community treatment services Ministry of Health, NZ, 2017
Start your recovery US, 2018 
NZ health survey 2017/18 – alcohol use  Alcohol Healthwatch, NZ, 2018
Alcohol and cancer risk National Cancer Institute, US, 2021

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Luisa Silailai, Programme Manager for Alcohol Harm Minimisation and accredited DAPAANZ Clinical Supervisor/Alcohol and other Drugs and Problem Gambling Clinician. Last reviewed: 01 Jun 2022