alcohol is a factor in over 25% of road deaths

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol and its effects

Alcohol is a depressant that affects concentration and coordination, slowing reaction times and affecting responses to situations, hence the danger when engaging in activities such as driving, working or sport.

In order to fully understand the consequences of drinking, you should first know what constitutes as a drink. A standard drink measures the amount of pure alcohol you are drinking.

Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) 

Drinking has different effects on different people, depending on their weight, sex and metabolism and can be influenced by a number of risk factors such as the amount consumed, an individual's medical history, and tolerance to alcohol, as well as other drugs – legal or illegal – mixed with alcohol.

A person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) determines the effect of alcohol on the central nervous system. Those who have built up a tolerance to alcohol can drink more than those with a lower tolerance level.

Depending on your BAC, you can experience an array of side effects that range from minor complications to more severe ones. For example, lower BAC percentages tend to come with temporary side effects that subside within a few hours. However, as BAC percentages increase, the symptoms become much more serious and can be life-threatening.

Here’s a breakdown of different BAC percentages along with their symptoms:

BAC: 0.033-0.12 Percent

  • Improvement in mood
  • Higher self-confidence
  • Less anxiety
  • Flushing of the face
  • Shorter attention span
  • Lack of fine motor coordination
  • Impairment of judgement

BAC: 0.09-0.25 Percent

  • Sedation
  • Loss of memory and lack of comprehension
  • Delayed motor reactions
  • Balance problems and ataxia
  • Blurred vision and sensation impairment

BAC 0.25-0.40 Percent

  • In and out of consciousness or complete unconsciousness
  • Amnesia during the events while intoxicated
  • Staggering gait
  • Vomiting with aspiration
  • Respiratory depression
  • Incontinence of urine
  • Slowed heart rate

BAC 0.35-0.80 Percent

  • Comatose
  • Lack of pupillary response to light
  • Life-threatening respiratory depression
  • Severe decrease in heart rate
  • Death

How alcohol abuse affects parts of the body

Alcohol abuse can affect your body both inside and out. Even though you’re unable to see the damage drinking causes to your internal organs, it’s important not to ignore the warning signs of alcoholism. Sometimes the harmful effects aren’t discovered until much later in life, making it difficult to reverse many health complications.

While the short-term effects, such as lack of coordination, mood changes and nausea are well known, the long-term effects on the body of prolonged and/or excessive drinking can include:

  • Loss of feeling in hands and feet.
  • Brain damage.
  • Loss of memory.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Confusion.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Enlarged heart.
  • Irregular pulse.
  • Increased risk of infections including tuberculosis, cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis, increased cancer risk, bleeding, ulcers and muscle weakness.

For men

  • Impotence.
  • Shrinking of testicles.
  • Sperm damage and lower sperm count.

For women:

  • Increased gynaecological problems.
  • Foetus damage if pregnant.
  • Increased risk of breast cancer.

While every organ in your body can feel the effects from drinking, some are more at risk for extensive damage. The best way to prevent health issues now and in the future is to quit drinking with the help of a professional treatment program.


Alcohol’s effects on the brain can be felt quickly. Not only can drinking cause temporary complications such as memory loss and coordination, it can also lead to long-term side effects that are sometimes irreversible.

Prolonged and excessive alcohol use can interfere with how the brain functions, as well as how it’s structured. Damage to different regions of the brain, especially the cerebellum, limbic system and cerebral cortex, can significantly impact the body’s communication pathways. For example, the cerebellum handles your body’s motor skills. When alcohol affects this area of the brain, you’re more likely to experience a loss of balance, as well as memory and emotional response issues.


The heart is extremely vulnerable to the negative effects of alcohol consumption. Over time, heavy drinking can weaken the heart, impacting how oxygen and nutrients are delivered to other vital organs in your body. Excessive alcohol consumption can increase triglyceride levels – a type of fat in your blood. High levels of triglycerides contribute to the risk of developing dangerous health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

Some of the early cardiovascular effects, like high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat, can lead to a host of problems down the road. Long-term consequences of excessive drinking may include cardiomyopathy, stroke and sudden cardiac death.


Heavy drinkers are at risk of harmful, potentially life-threatening liver problems. When you drink, your liver breaks down alcohol and removes it from your blood. However, too much alcohol in a short period of time can overwhelm the metabolism process and lead to fatty liver. Fatty liver is a chronic condition that involves the buildup of bad fats in the liver. Obesity is one of the biggest factors of fatty liver. It can also cause liver failure and type 2 diabetes.

Other serious liver complications associated with prolonged and excessive alcohol consumption are alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis. While each of these conditions is treatable, they require a proper medical diagnosis and intensive treatment plan.


The pancreas is part of the digestive process and helps regulate your body’s blood sugar levels. Drinking alcohol over many years can start to negatively impact your pancreas and cause lasting health complications. Unfortunately, the early stages of many pancreatic conditions are often unfelt and therefore, left untreated.

Long-term alcohol abuse can eventually cause the blood vessels around the pancreas to swell, leading to pancreatitis. This greatly increases your risk of developing pancreatic cancer – a type of cancer that spreads rapidly and is very dangerous. Symptoms of an acute pancreatic attack may include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, nausea, fast heart rate and fever. While medications and other treatment methods can help manage the effects of pancreatitis, it is very difficult to reverse the condition.

Alcohol poisoning 

Too much alcohol consumed in a short period of time can slow your breathing and heart rate, lower your body temperature, and cause confusion, vomiting, seizures, unconsciousness, and even death. Alcohol poisoning can also suppress your gag reflex, increasing the risk that you will choke on your own vomit if you pass out.

If a person has been binge drinking and is unconscious or semiconscious, their breathing is slow, their skin is clammy, and there is a strong odor of alcohol, they may have alcohol poisoning.

  • Don’t leave them alone to “sleep it off.”
  • If the person vomits, turn them onto their side to avoid choking.
  • Call 111 and wait with them for medical help to arrive.

Common myths about alcoholism 

Myth: I can stop drinking whenever I want.

Fact: You might be able to; more likely, you won't be able to. In any case, it's just another reason to keep drinking. To be honest, you don't want to stop. Telling yourself you can quit gives you a sense of control, despite all evidence to the contrary and regardless of the harm it is causing.

Myth: My drinking is my problem. No one has the authority to tell me to stop because I am the one who is being hurt.

It is true that the decision to stop drinking is entirely up to you. But you are deceiving yourself if you believe that your drinking only harms you. Everyone around you is affected by alcoholism, especially those closest to you. Their problem is your problem.

Myth: I’m not an alcoholic because I have a job and I’m doing okay.

Fact: Being an alcoholic does not necessitate being homeless and drinking from a brown paper bag. Many alcoholics are able to work, attend school, and provide for their families. Some are even capable of excelling. However, just because you're a high-functioning alcoholic doesn't mean you're not endangering yourself or others. The consequences will eventually catch up with you.

Myth: Unlike drug abuse, drinking is not a "real" addiction.

Alcohol is a drug, and alcoholism is just as harmful as drug addiction. Alcohol addiction alters the body and brain, and long-term alcohol abuse can be detrimental to your health, career, and relationships. When alcoholics stop drinking, they experience physical withdrawal, just as drug users do when they stop using.

Signs of alcohol abuse

Alcohol has been a part of socialising in New Zealand since the early settlers arrived in the mid-1800s. Nearly 200 years later, a culture of “binge drinking” has emerged, particularly in  young people.

Having a good time doesn’t need to involve copious amounts of alcohol. Binge drinking is not fun – it 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. They also risk becoming dependent on alcohol.

If you’re having trouble enjoying yourself without a drink, you could have a problem. The Health Promotion Agency (HPA) suggests that you should ask yourself:

  • Do I find it difficult to stop drinking once I start?
  • Does bad stuff often happen when I drink?
  • Have I ever gone to A&E?
  • Has drinking got me in trouble with the law?
  • Do I experience bad hangovers?
  • Does drinking cause trouble with whānau/family?
  • Does drinking get in the way of work?
  • Do I seem to never have any money because of drinking?
  • Do I want to change my drinking habits?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions you probably have a problem. If you want to make some changes, visit our drugs and alcohol directory here or call the Alcohol Drug Helpline (0800 787 797).

Ways to reduce your consumption 

The HPA suggests that if you would like to cut down:

Don’t drink if:

  • You’re pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant.
  • You’re on medication or if you have a condition made worse by drinking.
  • You feel unwell, depressed, tired or cold as alcohol could make things worse.
  • You’re about to operate machinery or a vehicle or do anything that is risky or requires skill.

When you’re out:

  • There’s safety in numbers.
  • Stick with your mates.
  • If you’re going to be drinking, do so in moderation.
  • The more you drink, the worse your decisions will be.
  • If you’re drinking, have water or non-alcoholic drinks between each drink.
  • Determine early on (when you are sober) how many drinks you will have so you maintain self-control.
  • Consider the type of drink you are having, taking into account the alcohol content (beer has less alcohol than spirits.)
  • Stay in a group (preferably with at least one sober friend.)
  • Have a designated sober driver if you intend to drive home.
  • Eat before you drink and while you’re drinking.
  • Try drinks with lower alcohol content, but don’t make that an excuse for drinking more.
  • Drink slowly.
  • Don’t allow others to top up your drink.
  • Count your drinks and stick to your limit.
  • Tell your friends that you’re cutting down.
  • Don’t drive.
  • Stick with your drink – don’t leave it unattended and only drink what you’ve seen poured in front of you.

How to support the immune system after drinking

When someone stops using alcohol, healing often focuses on promoting the best immune health possible. Several simple ways to improve your immune system health include:

  • Avoid smoking
  • Follow a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables
  • Get sufficient sleep
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Reduce stress when possible

While these suggestions can help your immune system, the best way to cure it is to stop consuming alcohol as soon as possible. If you're having trouble quitting drinking, call one of the free 24/7 helplines listed in our directory here

Drink driving

Alcohol affects how we drive. The risk rapidly increases as the blood-alcohol level rises. If we drink and drive with a blood-alcohol level over 80mg per 100ml we are at least three times more likely to be in a crash than a sober driver. People with a high blood alcohol level are more likely to be injured or killed in a crash than those who are sober.

Alcohol-affected drivers are involved in about 30% of fatal vehicle crashes. They are also involved in one-in-eight injury crashes. The 2005 road toll was 405: study suggests that alcohol was a contributing factor in 115 of those deaths – 28%. Some other key facts reported by Police: 

  • In 2008, driver alcohol/drugs was a contributing factor in 103 fatal crashes, 441 serious injury crashes and 1156 minor crashes.
  • For every 100 drunk drivers killed, 55 of their own passengers and 36 other drivers, passengers, cyclists or pedestrians died with them.
  • The total social cost of motor vehicle fatal and injury crashes in 2018 is estimated at approximately $4.9 billion. This estimate covers all injuries recorded by NZ Police, hospitals and ACC. For non-fatal injuries, the updated average social cost is estimated at $477,600 per serious injury and $25,500 per minor injury.
  • More than 85% of drivers with excess blood alcohol in fatal crashes were male.
  • Of the 1,233 traffic deaths among children ages 0 to 14 years in 2016, 214 (17%) involved an alcohol-impaired driver.

Changing lethal behaviour

From 2004 the approach to road safety advertising has aimed at asking New Zealanders to demand that drivers improve their driving behaviour. This approach focuses on facts, figures and physics, the impact of risky driving on the victim, families and communities, emotion and rationality, credibility and personality. It wants people to start asking whether they want to share the road with drivers who endanger the rest of us.

The advertising and enforcement campaign approach highlights the link between drink driving and road crashes. By presenting drink driving as socially unacceptable and by stimulating social pressure and intolerance to support this, it aims at changing attitudes and behaviour and a consequent reduction in road trauma caused by drink driving. As well, the Police enforce this area of traffic law. Compulsory breath-testing is an effective deterrent. Tactics to combat drink driving are:

  • Conspicuous, compulsory breath-testing.
  • Passive alcohol-testing devices.
  • Vigorous enforcement of alcohol laws.

The legal drink-drive limit for drivers under 20 years of age is a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of zero. The legal drink-drive limits for drivers 20 years and over are a breath alcohol limit of 250 micrograms (mcg) of alcohol per litre of breath and a blood alcohol limit of 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.

The cost to the country

A 2009 study, applying a methodology endorsed by the World Health Organization, estimated harmful alcohol use cost New Zealand $4.9 billion in 2005/06. However, previous estimates have ranged from $735 million to $16.1 billion.

The cost to New Zealand in so many ways is horrendous. We are spending millions of dollars to combat alcohol abuse, to provide health care and support services, and to provide resources for the Police, and the justice and prison systems. But what cannot be quantified is the cost of broken lives – lives of family members who have tolerated drunkenness and "binge" drinking to the point where it has become "normal" in their family life.

A research report commissioned for the Alcohol Advisory Council (ALAC), The Burden of Death, Disease and Disability due to Alcohol in New Zealand, found that 3.9% of all deaths in New Zealand in 2000 could be attributed to alcohol consumption. Other figures showed that:

  •  In 2016, New Zealanders consumed 10.7 litres of pure alcohol per person (15+). 
  • One in three teenagers aged 12 to 17 reported in 2003 that they made no attempt to limit their drinking.
  • 48% of New Zealanders surveyed in 2003 thought it was OK to get drunk.
  • A quarter of all adults engage in risky drinking on a relatively frequent basis, according to ALAC.

Alcohol is a drug that has a significant effect on the level of violence in New Zealand. It’s a major factor in family violence, street violence and sexual offending, and contributes to road crashes and property damage. Its effects are wide-reaching and devastating for too many families. More deaths and injuries involve alcohol than any other drug. Of all reported crime, the police say alcohol is a factor in:

  • A third of all violence
  • Half of all serious violence
  • Half of all drugs and anti-social offences
  • At least 1 in 5 cases of sexual offending
  • 1 in 4 traffic offences
  • 1 in 4 property offences
  • 1 in 5 traffic crashes

Alcohol-related issues use up at least 18% of the total police budget.

Getting help 

You've already taken the first step if you're willing to admit you have a drinking problem. It takes enormous strength and courage to confront alcoholism and alcoholism head on. The second step is to seek assistance.

Support is essential whether you choose to go to rehab, rely on self-help programmes, receive therapy, or pursue a self-directed treatment approach. When you have people to lean on for encouragement, comfort, and guidance, recovering from alcoholism is much easier. When the going gets tough, it's easy to revert to old habits if you don't have anyone to lean on.

Continued mental health treatment, learning healthier coping strategies, and making better decisions when faced with life's challenges are all critical to your long-term recovery. To stay alcohol-free in the long run, you'll need to address the underlying issues that led to your alcoholism or alcohol abuse in the first place.

These issues could include depression, an inability to manage stress, unresolved childhood trauma, or any number of other mental health issues. When you no longer use alcohol to mask your problems, they may become more visible. However, you will be in a better position to finally address them and seek the assistance you require.

Behavioural Treatments

Counseling is used in behavioural treatments to change drinking habits. They are led by health professionals and backed up by research that shows they can be beneficial.


Medications are prescribed by a primary care physician or other health professional and can be taken alone or in conjunction with counselling.

Helping a loved one

Admitting a loved one has an alcohol problem can be difficult for the entire family, not just the person drinking. But don't be embarrassed. You're not by yourself. Both you and your loved one can get assistance and support.

Admitting a loved one has an alcohol problem can be difficult for the entire family, not just the person drinking. But don't be embarrassed. You're not by yourself. Both you and your loved one can get assistance and support.

Alcohol during pregnancy

Drinking alcohol at any point during your pregnancy can result in serious health problems for your baby. When you drink alcohol while pregnant, the alcohol in your blood quickly passes to your baby through the placenta and umbilical cord. The placenta develops in your uterus (womb) and provides food and oxygen to the baby via the umbilical cord. Any amount of alcohol consumed during pregnancy can be harmful to your baby's developing brain and other organs. No amount of alcohol has ever been proven to be safe during pregnancy.

There is no safe time to consume alcohol while pregnant. Alcohol can harm your baby at any point during pregnancy, even before you realise you're pregnant. You could be pregnant and not realise it for 4 to 6 weeks.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy increases your baby's chances of having these problems:

  • Premature birth. This is when your baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Premature babies may have serious health problems at birth and later in life. 
  • Brain damage and problems with growth and development
  • Birth defects, like heart defects, hearing problems or vision problems. Birth defects are health conditions that are present at birth. Birth defects change the shape or function of one or more parts of the body. They can cause problems in overall health, how the body develops, or in how the body works.
  • Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (also called FASDs). Children with FASDs may have a range of problems, including intellectual and developmental disabilities. These are problems with how the brain works that can cause a person to have trouble in learning, communicating, taking care of himself or getting along with others. They also may have problems or delays in physical development. FASDs usually last a lifetime. Binge drinking during pregnancy increases your chances of having a baby with FASDs. Binge drinking is when you drink four or more drinks in 2 to 3 hours.
  • Low birthweight (also called LBW). This is when a baby is born weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces.
  • Miscarriage. This is when a baby dies in the womb before 20 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Stillbirth. This is when a baby dies in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

How can you keep your baby safe from alcohol during pregnancy 

If you do not drink alcohol while pregnant, your baby will not have FASDs or any other alcohol-related health problems. Don't drink alcohol if you're pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant. If you do become pregnant, make sure you get regular prenatal care (medical care you get during pregnancy). Inform your doctor if you need assistance quitting drinking.

Some women may drink alcohol during pregnancy and have babies who seem healthy. Some women may have very little alcohol during pregnancy and have babies with serious health conditions. Every pregnancy is different. Alcohol may hurt one baby more than another. 

Alcohol poisoning 

Too much alcohol consumed in a short period of time can slow your breathing and heart rate, lower your body temperature, and cause confusion, vomiting, seizures, unconsciousness, and even death. Alcohol poisoning can also suppress your gag reflex, increasing the risk that you will choke on your own vomit if you pass out.

If a person has been binge drinking and is unconscious or semiconscious, their breathing is slow, their skin is clammy, and there is a strong odor of alcohol, they may have alcohol poisoning.

  • Don’t leave them alone to “sleep it off.”
  • If the person vomits, turn them onto their side to avoid choking.
  • Call 111 and wait with them for medical help to arrive.