Alcohol is readily available among teenagers and pre-teens in New Zealand. For NZ parents we overview some key facts on the abuse of alcohol and the effects of alcohol on the body and on the lives of young people.

What is alcohol?

Alcohol is a sedative depressant. It is a chemical which can also cause dependency.

How does alcohol affect you?

Alcohol will affect you in different ways, depending upon your size, your gender, the types of alcoholic drinks you have taken, how quickly you are drinking them and the amount you have eaten that day.

What are the effects of alcohol within your body?

Alcohol enters your body through your mouth, in the form of alcoholic drinks, then into your stomach where it is absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream. The blood supply travels from the stomach back to the heart, where it is then pumped around your body, including your brain. The effects of alcohol can therefore be felt very quickly if taken on an empty stomach:

  • Small amounts may relax you
  • Increasing amounts will further depress you, affecting your decision making
  • Balance and coordination will also be affected by alcohol

Alcohol slows you down – whatever you may believe to the contrary!

Alcohol is also taken to the liver through the blood supply. This is the only place in your body that can break down alcohol, lessening its effects. The liver can break down one unit of alcohol per hour. This is a slow steady process and exercising or showering will not speed up the process, although they may make you think you are more alert.

Vomiting will rid you of any alcohol that remains in your stomach unabsorbed, but will not affect the amount of alcohol that has already reached your blood stream.

Alcohol affects your body’s ability to conserve fluid – a hormone called anti diuretic hormone or ADH is ineffective in the presence of alcohol. Therefore the body produces large amounts of urine and you become dehydrated, causing headache and dryness. This can be very dangerous as the body relies on this carefully balanced environment to carry out all its vital functions.

What are the safe limits of alcohol for men and women?

Alcohol will affect people differently according to their body weights. The smaller you are the worse alcohol will affect you. Women also get hit faster by alcohol as their body composition has a lower water ratio. This is even worse if you have your period or if you are on the contraceptive pill.

Pregnant women are advised to avoid alcohol altogether as no one knows what the safe level of alcohol is for pregnancy.

Facts : How much alcohol?

Different drinks have different levels of alcohol in them. The average beer contains 4-6% alcohol, or is 4% proof. Wine is usually 10-13% proof; spirits are as high as 40% proof.

Each alcoholic bottle or can in New Zealand states the number of standard drinks it contains. For example, a can of beer may contain one standard drink. A bottle of wine may contain 6-8 standard drinks, a bottle of spirits may contain as many as 40!

Drinking slowly and steadily through the day and drinking water in between will have a very different effect to downing 6 beers, one after another!

Likewise drinking a couple of glasses of wine each day is a much safer option than drinking 2 bottles of wine at the weekend.

So it’s not what we’re drinking – it’s how we’re drinking!

Abuse : How excess alcohol can affect young people

  • Too much alcohol in a short space of time can cause loss of memory and blackout. This is embarrassing, it’s dangerous and it could lead to you getting into a great deal of trouble.
  • Binge drinking is related to crime and to ‘date rape’ where women are forced into sex they have not consented to with a ‘so called’ date. Very often the women do not remember clearly what has happened to them. The risk of sexually transmissible diseases increases markedly with drinking until out of control and some diseases can have life-long devastating effects. All STIs are pretty horrid!
  • Drinking to excess and hangovers affect sporting ability, due to the dehydration it causes. Many a would-be athlete has been lost to the lure of the bottle.
  • Alcohol can make people think they are invincible – it is associated with dangerous stunts which end in casualty, drunk driving and damage to property which is out of character. Often young people head off home alone in the dark, putting themselves at risk of attack and rape.
  • Alcohol affects relationships. No one wants to be friends with a drunk.
  • Everyone thinks their own drinking is under control – until it’s too late!
  • Excessive drinking causes much misery in whanau/families, among affected friends and children, and across neighbourhoods.
  • Alcohol affects kids school performance, work performance and ability to study the next day.
  • Too much alcohol will eventually cause blackout, alcoholic poisoning and ultimately death. This sounds alarmist, but believe me – it happens.
  • Drinking can cause even the gentlest of people to become stroppy and violent.
  • Long term heavy drinking can cause damage to your stomach, your liver and your brain. These chronic conditions can be fatal at a relatively young age.

Drinking within safe limits

Alcohol is generally a widespread, socially acceptable drug, which is consumed widely through out New Zealand. Usually it is enjoyed safely amongst whanau and friends. As a community we need to learn our limits and stay there!

Giving alcohol to under 18s

From December 18 2013, the law requires adults who give alcohol to anyone under 18 to have express permission from their parent or guardian. You can find out more about this law on our information page

Useful articles and websites

For more information on Sexually Transmissible Infections (STIs), click here.

Contact Alcohol Helpline on 0800 787 797 between 10am-10pm, if you are worried about your own drinking, or someone else’s. This helpline provides free information and advice, and is totally confidential.

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Paula Skelton is a qualified NZ nurse and midwife, a midwifery & childbirth educator and the mum of three lovely girls.

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