Introduction to alcohol and the festive season

Alcohol and the festive seasonThe festive season in Australia is a time when people gather amongst family and friends and many enjoy a few alcoholic drinks around the barbeque or at the beach. However, at this time of year there are many social gatherings and it can be easy to over-indulge.

Social time is important and can have many health benefits, such as enjoyment and stress relief. However, people who consume too much alcohol can endanger their health both in the immediate and long term. It is therefore an important time for people to be informed about how to consume alcohol safely and be careful to avoid consuming alcohol in quantities that put their health at risk.

How much is it safe to drink?

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends that men and women drink no more than two standard drinks on any given day in order to reduce the long term risks of alcohol consumption. These risks include an increased likelihood of developing cardiovascular problems, diabetes, cancer and liver disorders.

There are also a number of immediate risks associated with alcohol consumption, which arise because alcohol reduces motor and sensory skills, and also inhibitions. In the immediate term, excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of trauma and death (for example, if someone is very drunk and passes out, they may stop breathing or choke). To reduce these immediate risks, it is recommended that individuals do not drink more than four standard drinks in any one sitting.

If a person is intending to drive a motor vehicle or operate other machinery, their blood alcohol level should not exceed 0.05 g ethanol per 100 mL of blood (0.05%). This is the equivalent of consuming one standard drink per hour.

How much alcohol is consumed in the festive season?

There is evidence that alcohol consumption increases in the festive season. A study conducted in Spain reported increased alcohol and substance abuse at work Christmas parties compared to other times of the year. A study from Finland reported increased alcohol sales (and an increased incidence of fatal alcohol poisonings) on weekends and at times of celebration such as Christmas and May Day.

Tips for safe alcohol consumption in the festive period

Alcohol and the festive seasonIt is important for people who drink alcohol to be aware how much alcohol can be consumed safely, and to develop strategies to ensure that they don’t drink too much. The following tips for safe alcohol consumption apply to any time of year, but may be particularly useful in the pre-Christmas period when people tend to drink alcohol more frequently and in larger quantities.

Remember the difference between a standard drink and a serving of alcohol

Remember that a standard drink is not always equivalent to a serving of alcohol. In Australia, a standard drink is one containing the equivalent of 10 g of ethanol. However, in many cases a single serving of alcohol (e.g. a glass of wine, a bottle of beer) is more than one standard drink or 10 g of ethanol. A standard drink is the equivalent of:

  • 100 mL of wine (9.5–13% alcohol);
  • 250 mL of full strength beer (4.9% alcohol);
  • 375 mL of mid-strength beer (3.5% alcohol);
  • 470 mL of light beer (2.7% alcohol);
  • 30 mL of spirits (37–40%).

Standard serving sizes often contain more than one standard drink. For example:

  • In restaurants, wine is often served in 150 mL glasses (1.4–1.6 standard drinks);
  • Standard cans and bottles of beer contain 375 mL of alcohol (1.4 standard drinks);
  • Cans of pre-mixed spirits can contain up to 2.1 standard drinks.
Convert your Drinks into Standard Serving Sizes
For an amount of alcohol, find out how many standard drinks it represents.
  1. National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. 2009. [cited 2 May 2014]. [URL Link]


Keep track of how much you drink

It is often difficult to keep track of the amount of alcohol consumed, because the concentration of alcohol varies between alcoholic beverages, and because drinks are served in glasses that can hold more than one standard drink. When keeping track of alcohol consumption, it is important to consider both the serving size and concentration of alcohol. Monitoring alcohol consumption on a daily and weekly basis is also important. To make monitoring alcohol consumption easier:

  • Avoid refilling a half empty glass: It is much harder to keep track of how much is being consumed if a half empty glass is refilled, compared to when the drinker waits and refills their glass only when it is empty;
  • Keep track of the serving size of drinks: Convert them to standard drinks. Don’t assume that a single serving is equivalent of a standard drink;
  • Check how much alcohol the beverage contains: Read the label, which in Australia must state the percentage of alcohol in the beverage. The more alcohol a drink contains, the lower the quantity that is equivalent to a standard drink.
Calculate your blood alcohol concentration
This tool can be used to provide a rough estimate of your individual blood alcohol concentration (BAC) after consuming a defined amount of alcohol in a single sitting. Please remember this is an estimate and it will not be 100% accurate, as there are a wide range of factors that can affect BAC in individuals (such as the amount of food eaten, type of drinks consumed and metabolic rate) and these are not taken into consideration when using this tool. Therefore, under no circumstances should this tool be used to determine whether you should drive. The only way to be totally sure that you remain under the legal BAC limit is not to drink any alcohol at all.


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  1. Do you know when to stop? A driver‘s guide to staying under 0.05 BAC [online]. Canberra, ACT: Australian Transport Safety Bureau; 2011 [cited February 2011]. Available from: URL link
  2. Alcohol and its effects [online]. Parkside, SA: Government of South Australia Health, Drug and Alcohol Services; 2010 [cited February 2011]. Available from: URL link


Set a limit and know when you’ve had enough

Aim to limit alcohol consumption to the quantity recommended by the NHMRC for safe consumption. Stop drinking alcohol before or once you have reached the daily limit of four standard drinks. Some people may choose to drink in excess of these guidelines despite the health risks involved. However, these people should still set a limit at which they will stop drinking. It may be difficult to stop drinking sometimes (e.g. if everybody else is having another drink), so it is also important to be assertive and resist the peer pressure to continue drinking.

Space alcoholic drinks and drink in moderation

To avoid getting drunk, space alcoholic drinks throughout the day or evening, for example by:

  • Starting with a soft drink, fruit juice or glass of water;
  • Drinking a glass of water after each alcoholic drink. This will help to rehydrate the body and also lengthen the period of time between alcoholic drinks;
  • Use a small glass for alcoholic beverages;
  • Drink slowly, taking sips not gulps;
  • Avoid ‘shouts’ or ’rounds’ of drinks or drinking competitions. These may encourage people to drink too quickly to keep up with the rounds;
  • Only have one alcoholic drink at a time;
  • Keep busy while drinking, for example by playing pool or talking with friends;
  • When planning a party, ensure there are plenty of alcohol-free and low alcohol options available.

Choose low-alcohol options

Alcohol and the festive seasonThe amount of alcohol contained in various alcoholic drinks varies considerably. For example, full strength beer contains approximately 5% alcohol (compared to 2.7% for light beer) while wine contains 9–13% alcohol and spirits 37–40% alcohol. Because there are many social gatherings in the pre-Christmas period, individuals are more likely to drink more often and may risk exceeding their recommended daily or weekly alcohol consumption. Choosing beverages containing no alcohol or lower concentrations of alcohol (e.g. light beer) or adding non-alcoholic mixers to spirits and wine to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed per glass can play an important role in reducing the total amount of alcohol consumed in the festive season.

Don’t forget to eat

Having food in the stomach reduces the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream and reduces the intoxicating effects of alcohol. It is very important to eat before or while consuming alcohol, and to eat enough food to fill the stomach. If you’re planning a party, ensure there is plenty of food available for guests.

Don’t drink and drive

Never drive a car if you’ve had more than one standard drink in an hour! When consumed, alcohol enters the bloodstream and affects the functioning of the drinker’s brain, reducing their ability to think and coordinate their actions. Drinking alcohol therefore reduces an individual’s ability to perform tasks such as driving a car. Driving under the influence of excessive amounts of alcohol is a major contributor to road accidents in Australia, particularly amongst young people and men. Over half of all alcohol-related road deaths and injuries in the country occur amongst young people aged 15–24 years, while 25% of all road accident deaths amongst men and 41% of all injuries are alcohol related (compared to 11% of deaths and 11% of injuries for women).

In Australia it is illegal to drive with a blood alcohol content of 0.05 g ethanol per 100 mL of blood (0.05%). This is the equivalent of drinking a single standard drink (10 g alcohol) in a one hour period, and is the level at which an individual’s sensory and motor skills remain adequate for performing complex tasks. It is therefore important to avoid driving a car after consuming more than one standard drink per hour. People planning to drink more than one standard drink in an hour should:

  • Go out with friends and designate a driver who will avoid alcohol, or organise a non-drinking friend to give them a lift;
  • Use public transport (e.g. bus or taxi) and ensure they have budgeted for the cost of getting home;
  • At a house party, make sure there is extra bedding available for guests who are unable to drive home;
  • Encourage friends who have been drinking not to drive.

More information

Alcohol For more information on drinking alcohol, including drinking disorders and alcohol’s effect on the body, as well as some useful tools, see Alcohol.
Festive health For more information on health during the festive season, including sleep, diet, exercise and stress, see Festive Health.


  1. Australian Drug Foundation. Ensure this Christmas isn’t silly season [online]. 2009 [cited 14 December 2009]. Available from [URL link
  2. Australian Drug Foundation. Safe partying for all ages [online]. 2008 [cited 13 December 2009]. Available from [URL link
  3. National Health and Medical Research Centre. Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking [online]. 6 March 2009 [cited 22 August 2009]. Available from [URL link]
  4. State Government of Victoria. Tips for a safe night out drinking [online]. 2009 [cited 13 December 2009]. Available from [URL link]
  5. Public Health Agency for Northern Ireland. Celebrating Christmas by drinking responsibly [online]. 27 November 2009. [cited 13 December 2009]. Available from [URL link
  6. Vidal-Infer A, Tomás-Dols S, Aguilar-Moya R, Samper-Gras T, Zarza MJ, Aguilar-Serrano J. [Christmas work dinners. A pattern of recreational use of alcohol and other drugs?] [Article in Spanish]. Adicciones. 2009; 21(2): 133-42.
  7. Poikolainen K, Leppänen K, Vuori E. Alcohol sales and fatal alcohol poisonings: A time-series analysis. Addiction. 2002. 97(8): 1037-40.

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