How often you drink, and how much, determines the short and long-term risks to your health.

Drinking regularly, even at low levels (e.g. two standard drinks per day), increases your risk of long-term health harm. [1] 

In New Zealand, one in twenty deaths (5.4%) each year can be directly attributable to alcohol use. Approximately one-third of these are due to cancer.

CANCER

Low levels of alcohol consumption can increase your risk of the following cancers [2]:

  • lip,
  • oral cavity
  • pharynx
  • oesophagus
  • breast

One in every 25 deaths from cancer in New Zealand are due to alcohol use (for persons <80 years).[4]

Of the cancer deaths caused by alcohol, breast cancer is most common.

In New Zealand, half of all cancer deaths from alcohol were due to an average consumption of less than 4 standards drinks per day (i.e. 4 x 330ml (4%) beer or 4 x 100ml (12.5%) wine) [4].

More than one-third of breast cancer deaths from alcohol were due to an average consumption of less than 2 standard drinks per day [4].

In addition to the above, there is an increased risk of harm from liver cancer and colorectal cancer [3].

OTHER LONG-TERM HEALTH CONDITIONS

Alcohol use is also linked with cirrhosis of the liver, ischaemic stroke and cardiac arrhythmias. 

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Is alcohol use good for my health?

You may have heard about alcohol use preventing heart disease.

We would not recommend drinking alcohol as a way to reduce your risk of heart disease. Having a healthy diet, doing exercise, and quitting smoking are likely to being the greatest benefit [1].

It is important to remember that there are risks of many health conditions from drinking at low levels, regularly.

Having important conversations about alcohol use

It is important that conversations about alcohol use become a normal part of our visits to the GP, hospital, social worker, Police, children's health services, etc.

In New Zealand, many of our social and health services are learning how to have these challenging conversations.

Ideally, we want everyone to talk to each other about their alcohol use.  This will start to create a discussion in our society about our drinking.


Identifying high-risk drinking / screening and offering help

Research shows that the following steps taken by a health professional can be effective to reduce alcohol use among hazardous and risky drinkers [1].

  • Screening – screening to determine the level of hazardous drinking for an individual
  • Brief Intervention – in 1-2 conversations, offering information or advice to increase a hazardous drinker’s motivation to avoid drinking and/or equip them with skills to reduce their alcohol use.
  • Referral to Treatment – people who are dependent on alcohol will be referred to trained clinicians or specialist treatment facilities for treatment. This often involves a level of care outside the scope of brief services.

This pathway is commonly referred to as SBIRT or can also be known as ABC (Ask – Brief Intervention – Counselling).

The increased use of this process will mean that a greater number of people will benefit from earlier identification of their problems . It will assist drinkers in understanding that their alcohol use is likely to cause them harm.

Given so many risky drinkers do not question their drinking or access help, this process will enable everyone to access the support that they need to reduce their drinking.

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[1] http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/activities/sbi/en/