2020 Australian guidelines on alcohol released


Various bottles of alcohol in a row

After a year-long period of public consultation Australia's peak health and medical research agency, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), have released the updated Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol.

The 2020 NHMRC guidelines were developed from systematic reviews on the health effects of drinking alcohol, modelling, data on Australian drinking patterns and best practice guideline development processes. Australia's Acting Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly explained why these guidelines are important for all Australians:

"Every year there are more than 4,000 alcohol-related deaths in Australia, and more than 70,000 hospital admissions. Alcohol is linked to more than 40 medical conditions, including many cancers.

"Following the guidelines keeps the risk of harm from alcohol low, but it does not remove all risk. Healthy adults drinking within the guideline recommendations have less than a 1 in 100 chance of dying from an alcohol-related condition."

New guidelines

  • Guideline 1: Reducing the risk of alcohol-related harm for adults

To reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury, healthy men and women should drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day. The less you drink, the lower your risk of harm from alcohol.

  • Guideline 2: Children and people under 18 years of age

To reduce the risk of injury and other harms to health, children and people under 18 years of age should not drink alcohol.

  • Guideline 3: Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding

A. To prevent harm from alcohol to their unborn child, women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should not drink alcohol.

B. For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking alcohol is safest for their baby.

Note: A 'standard drink' contains 10 grams of pure alcohol. This is about 285 ml of full-strength beer, a can of mid-strength beer, 100 ml of wine, or a single shot of spirits. Use our interactive Standard Drink Calculator to test your pour.

The absolute risk is a 1 in 100 chance of dying from alcohol-related disease and injury across a lifetime if a person drinks more than 10 standard drinks a week.

Why follow the NHMRC recommendations?

NHMRC provides advice to government and the community on a wide range of matters including nutrition, infant feeding, infection control, blood lead levels and drinking water quality.

The guidelines are backed up by extensive analysis and reviews, guided by a group of independent health experts including doctors, medical and public health professionals, researchers and consumer representatives. More on the process, analysis and review is available online at nhmrc.gov.au/alcohol.

"We're not telling Australians how much to drink, we're providing advice about the health risks so that we can all make informed decisions in our daily lives." – Professor Anne Kelso, CEO of NHMRC

The alcohol guidelines are the result of four years of extensive review, replacing the previous 2009 version and used to underpin policy decisions and public health messaging.

Other emerging evidence

Following these recommended guidelines go some way to reducing harm from alcohol. However, it can't be ignored that new evidence emerging since the last guidelines in 2009 show the following:

  • Drinking even small amounts of alcohol can be a risk for developing many cancers, including breast, liver, pancreatic, colorectal, oesophageal, mouth and throat (pharynx and larynx) cancer.
  • Consuming alcohol in a "binge" pattern increases the health risks.
  • The brain keeps developing till the age of 25. We are learning more and more that alcohol can harm that process.
  • The alcohol level in a mother's breastmilk will be the same as the alcohol level in her bloodstream. Alcohol will be in breastmilk within 30 and 60 minutes after a mother starts to drink. Generally, it takes two hours for an average woman to get rid of the alcohol from one standard alcoholic drink. "Pump and dump" does not work!
  • Eating while drinking alcohol reduces the speed at which the alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream, but it doesn't reduce the long-term health risks. It's the number of drinks that matters.
  • Previous studies about the cardio-protective effects from drinking alcohol have been found not to be as convincing as they were once thought to be.

Managing your alcohol intake

Unsure if you're drinking too much? Try our online confidential Alcohol Risk Assessment Tool to determine if your drinking is putting you at risk.

To track and reduce your alcohol use, download the NSW Health Drinks Meter app. Drinks Meter is a free app that provides confidential and personalised feedback based on advice from doctors and the Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. The app allows you to track your alcohol intake, the amount of calories you are drinking, how much you spending on alcohol and set weekly goals to reduce and stay healthy.

You can also take advantage of the free NSW telephone-based coaching service Get Healthy. The Get Healthy Alcohol Reduction program is designed to support you to make healthy lifestyle changes and reduce your alcohol consumption. The NSW Get Healthy Service is available Mon – Fri 8am – 8pm. To enrol call 1300 806 258 or register online at gethealthynsw.com.au/alcohol.

For free and confidential advice 24/7 call the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) on 1800 250 015. Counsellors are available to provide information, referrals, crisis counselling and support. Or start a Web Chat with an ADIS counsellor online Monday to Friday, 8.30am – 5pm. ADIS can also provide up-to-date information about service availability in your area during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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