Safe Levels of Drinking Alcohol: Australian Guidelines 2009

addiction-glass-saSo called ‘Safe’ levels of drinking alcohol are estimates of Risk – not a prediction of what will happen to any single person if they stay under the limits – or drink above those levels. Safe Drinking Guidelines are not a guarantee that we will not harm our health if we stay inside these Recommended Limits.  Guidelines are guidelines only.  They are guidelines based on estimates. They are estimates of Risk.

These Risk estimates are based on information collected from large populations of drinkers.  Health researchers match up the self-reported levels of alcohol consumption against documented health outcomes in those people studied.  The statistics are clear – and we all know what they say:

  • The lifetime risk of harm from drinking alcohol increases with the amount consumed.
  •  On a single occasion of drinking, the risk of alcohol-related injury increases with the amount consumed.

All you can say for sure, is that you will probably stay safe, if you do not drink above these Recommended Safe levels of alcohol consumption.  But, you will definitely increase your Risk of harm if you do drink above these Recommended Safe Levels.

Why Do We Need to Be Careful About

How Much Alcohol We Drink?

Alcohol is a drug, but it’s a legal drug.  Alcohol is also poisonous to cells.  Alcohol is toxic for all living cells, from bacteria cells to human brain and liver cells.  Alcohol is used as a disinfectant and sterilizer precisely because it does kill cells, such as bacteria cells.

Our bodies are usually able to cope with a certain amount of damage caused by alcohol consumed per day, over many years.   But if we drink more than that amount, every cell in our body is at risk of sustaining damage that is too great to be repaired by our body’s natural defense and repair systems.

Organs that are particularly at risk of harm from alcohol are our brains and our livers.  Both these organs are necessary to support life.  If we permanently damage either of them, it will severely reduce our quality of life, and also reduce how long we live compared to non-drinkers – or compared to people who drink at, or below, the recommended Safe Level Guidelines.

Australia has recently updated its Safe Drinking Guidelines.  The latest guidelines are much simpler, and easy to remember than the previous ones.  And also definitely less complicated than many Guidelines recommended by governments in other countries.

Safe Levels Of Alcohol Consumption in Australia 

These new 2009 Recommended Safe levels of drinking are now lower than they were before.  These 2009 Australian Guidelines are published by the NH&MRC – the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.

1. Reducing the risk of alcohol-related harm over a lifetime

The lifetime risk of harm from drinking alcohol increases with the amount consumed.

For healthy men and women, drinking no more than 2 standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.

2. Reducing the risk of injury on a single occasion of drinking – Binge Drinking

On a single occasion of drinking, the risk of alcohol-related injury increases with the amount consumed.

For healthy men and women, drinking no more than 4 standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion.

For a definition of ‘single occasion of drinking/, see further below.

3. Children and young people under 18 years of age

For children and young people under 18 years of age, not drinking alcohol at all is the safest option.

A. Parents and carers should be advised that children under 15 years of age are at the greatest risk of harm from drinking and that for this age group, not drinking alcohol is especially important.

B. For young people aged 15−17 years, the safest option is to delay the initiation of drinking for as long as possible

4: Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Maternal alcohol consumption can harm the developing fetus or breastfeeding baby.

A. For women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, not drinking is the safest option.

B. For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking is the safest option.

Some Important Take Home Messages from the NH&MRC:

1. There is no level of drinking alcohol that can be guaranteed to be completely ‘safe’ or ‘no risk’.

Rather, these guidelines set out advice on the level of drinking alcohol that will enable healthy adults to keep their risk of alcohol-related accidents, injuries, diseases and death low both in the short and long term.

2. The 2009 Guidelines focus on the health risks that accumulate over a lifetime from alcohol, and understanding that these risks increases progressively – the more you drink, the greater the risk.

3. Young people (up to 18 years of age) are advised not to drink alcohol at all.

The previous guidelines recommended young people not to drink above levels suggested for adults

This was changed because it is now known that the brains of teenagers under the age of 18, are damaged at lower levels of blood alcohol than the brains of older people.

Young brains are still developing and are at increased risk of harm from alcohol.  Therefore delaying exposure of their brains to alcohol for as long as possible reduces the risk of damage, and also reduces the risk of problem drinking later in their lives.

4. The previous guidelines set out 4 drinks for men and 2 drinks for women per day, on average.

The 2009 Guidelines recommend the same level of alcohol for women, but have tightened the recommendations for men.

The Australian Safe Drinking Guidelines for Men and Women are now the same.  Why?

At low levels of alcohol consumption, there is little difference between the risk of alcohol-related harm for men and women, both over a lifetime and on a single drinking occasion.

However, at higher levels of alcohol consumption:

  • over a lifetime, the risk of alcohol-related disease increases more quickly for women and the risk of alcohol-related injury increases more quickly for men; and


  • on a single occasion, women may reach higher blood alcohol levels than men who have consumed an equivalent amount of alcohol; however, men are more likely to incur an injury because in general they are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour when drinking.

On the basis of these factors the drinking guidelines for low health risk are the same for men and women – no more than 2 standard drinks on any day and no more than 4 standard drinks on a single occasion

These Guidelines are based on the ‘Standard Drink’ – but how big is an Australian Standard Drink?

In Australia,  a standard drink is still 10 grams of alcohol. But what does 10 grams of alcohol mean when you are buying a drink, or drinking alcohol at home?

A Standard Drink is Different to a Normal Serving of alcohol

It is important to note that drink-serving sizes are often more than one standard drink. There are no common glass sizes used in Australia.

Can/Stubbie low-strength beer = 0.8 standard drink
Can/Stubbie mid-strength beer = 1 standard drink
Can/Stubbie full-strength beer = 1.4 standard drinks
100ml wine (13.5% alcohol) = 1 standard drink
30ml nip spirits = 1 standard drink
Can spirits (approx 5% alcohol) = 1.2 to 1.7 standard drinks
Can spirits (approx 7% alcohol) = 1.6 to 2.4 standard drinks

Binge Drinking: What does a Single Occasion of Drinking Mean?

A single occasion of drinking is a sequence of consuming drinks without the blood alcohol concentration reaching zero in between. This can be at home or at an event, but includes drinking spread across more than one context or venue.

What are the risks of using illicit drugs and alcohol together?

Mixing illicit drugs such as cannabis, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or ecstasy, with alcohol can have dangerous or lethal consequences.

Drinking alcohol makes me feel better about myself – why should I drink within the Guidelines?

People who are depressed, anxious or have other mental health problems sometimes drink to make themselves feel better. This does not address the real problems and may make things worse. Mixing alcohol with certain medications can cause significant problems as well.

Risk taking is an individual’s responsibility.  If we know what the Risks are, we can decide for ourselves how much Risk we are prepared to take.  But individuals do not live in isolation.  Our risk taking can affect other people as well as ourselves.

Know the risks, and please, look after others as well as yourself.


The National Health & Medical Research Council (NH&MRC, 2009).

Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol

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