Why have guidelines? Although we do have knowledge of the Responsible Service of Alcohol, there is really no safe level of drinking. The Australian guidelines help to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol and also provide a general guide for people to reduce the risk of harm. Here we will discuss each Australian Guideline and what they mean to us.
Guideline 1: Reducing the risk of alcohol-related harm over a lifetime
The more alcohol a person consumes – their risk of developing an alcohol-related injury or disease during their lifetime – increases significantly. For healthy men and women, to reduce the risk of an alcohol-related injury or disease during their lifetime, they should drink no more than two (2) standard drinks on any day. Following this guideline decreases the lifetime risk of death from an alcohol-related injury or disease, which is less than 1 in 100. Every drink above this level increases this risk. Lower levels of drinking: there is little difference between the risk of an alcohol-related injury or disease, during the lifetime, of men and women. However, higher levels of drinking increase the risks rapidly for women than men.
Guideline 2: Reducing the risk of injury on a single occasion of drinking
The more alcohol a person drinks on a single occasion, the greater the risk of an immediate alcohol-related injury arising from that particular occasion. Healthy men and women, reducing the risk of an immediate alcohol-related injury, should drink no more than four (4) standard drinks on any one occasion. Drinking four standard drinks on a single occasion more than doubles the relative risk of injury in the following six hours, and this risk increases rapidly with each additional drink. Each single drinking occasion is also a contributing factor to the risk of an alcohol-related injury or disease over the lifetime (Guideline 1). While women will generally require less alcohol than men to reach a prescribed blood alcohol level, men’s behaviour when drinking is generally more risky.
Guideline 3: Children and young people under 18 years of age
For children and young people less than 18 years of age, not drinking is the safest option.
During adolescence, the brain continues to develop and undergoes many changes. Drinking alcohol can affect the natural development of the brain and can lead to alcohol-related harm later in life. Parents and carers are advised that young people under the age of 15 can exhibit dangerous and antisocial behaviour, when they drink more than their older counterparts, are at greatest risk of harm from drinking, and it is especially important that they do not drink alcohol. Starting to drink at a young age may also increase the likelihood of drinking more frequently during adolescence, which could lead to alcohol-related harm later in life. Young people aged 15–17 years who choose to drink should be in a safe environment, supervised by adults and stay within the guidelines (guidelines 1 and 2).
Guideline 4: Pregnancy and breastfeeding
For women who are pregnant, are planning a pregnancy, or are breastfeeding, not drinking is the safest option.
Drinking while pregnant can cause problems such as bleeding, miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. When a pregnant women drinks, the alcohol crosses the placenta to the unborn baby. This can affect the natural development of the baby, and can include slowed growth and a range of physical, mental, behavioural and learning disabilities that are grouped under the term Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Alcohol also reduces a mother’s milk supply, and also passes through the blood stream into the breast milk. This may then affect the baby’s feeding and sleeping patterns, as well as the baby’s psychomotor development.
The guidelines outlined in this article provide a general guide; however, there are many other factors of responsible service of alcohol and the abuse of alcohol that can affect the risk of alcohol-related harm – that should be considered when making decisions about drinking. In most cases, not drinking is the safest option when you are involved in, or supervising, risky activities such as driving, operating machinery or water sports, or when you are supervising children.
It is recommended that some people seek advice from their health professional about drinking if the person is taking any medicines (including prescription or over-the-counter medicines), is someone with alcohol-related or other physical conditions that can be affected by alcohol, or who suffers mental health issues.
Some demographics may have an increased risk of harm if they drink alcohol, such as young adults (18–25 years), older people (60 years and older), people with a family history of alcohol dependence, and people who use drugs illicitly.
People should also consider how their drinking may affect others.
People that are a part of these outlined demographics should be aware of the guidelines and the responsible service of alcohol that these align with.