Alcohol and drug use in kids and teens

Young people and alcohol consumption

For children and young people under the age of 18, there is no clear or safe level of alcohol consumption. This is why it is recommended children under 18 years do not consume alcohol. 

Alcohol use in the home

Research suggests that even with supervised alcohol consumption in the home, early alcohol use can lead to harmful drinking practices both in adolescence and later in life.

The Australian guidelines to reduce health-related risk from drinking alcohol for those over 18 suggest:  

  1. Lifetime risks: any person consuming alcohol should drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week and 
  2. Single occasion risk: any person consuming alcohol should drink no more than 4 standard drinks on any one-day 

Young people aged 16-24 are twice as likely to consume alcohol at very high levels on a single occasion (binge drinking) compared to all other population groups. For every drink an adolescent or young person doesn’t consume, they will lower their risk of health-related harm from alcohol. 

Did you know?

There is no safe level of drinking alcohol. It is a known carcinogen and the best way to reduce risk of harm is by not drinking.

Drinking alcohol is strongly linked as a known cause of cancer. Drinking alcohol increases a person’s risk of being diagnosed with the following seven types of cancer: 

  • breast cancer 
  • liver cancer 
  • mouth cancer 
  • throat cancer 
  • oesophagus cancer 
  • bowel cancer and 
  • stomach cancer. 

Understanding alcohol and drug use

Understanding the potential risks and health impacts of substance use for teenagers will help equip you and your child to make informed decisions during their adolescent years. 

Your child is likely to encounter drugs and alcohol during their adolescent years, despite any efforts to prevent it. As a parent, it’s best to focus on how you can have constructive, open discussions. This may help delay use in younger years, and prevent potential harm or misuse. 

Recent data shows that cannabis and alcohol are the most widely used substances in the teenage cohort. E-cigarette use (vaping) is also concerningly on the rise in this same age group. 

See Vaping and smoking for more information. 

Did you know?

  • 16% of children 14-17 years old had used cannabis in their lifetime 
  • 27% of children 14-17 years old had used alcohol in their lifetime 
  • The average age at which children were introduced to alcohol is steadily rising from 14.7 years in 2001 to 16.2 years in 2019 (see Health consequences for more information on why the legal drinking age in Australia is 18 years or above). 
  • 43% of teenagers who currently drink alcohol obtain it from their parents 
  • 48% of teenagers who are current smokers obtain their tobacco products from friends 

Other drugs that may be used by young people or have been emerging topics include cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines, inhalants, hallucinogens, ketamine, GHB, amyl nitrite, anabolic steroids and other pharmaceuticals for no prescription purposes. 

Laws in Australia

Alcohol and drug laws in Australia are differentiated based on what is considered a legal substance and what is an illegal substance. 

  • Legal substances in Australia include alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and over-the-counter prescription medication. Note- this doesn’t mean their use is completely safe. 
  • illegal substances in Australia include, but are not limited to amphetamines, cannabis (marijuana), ecstasy (MDMA) and heroin. 

Of the legal substances in Australia, they will all have some form of restriction or regulation as to where, when and who is legally allowed to use them. These restrictions include: 


People cannot legally consume (or be supplied) alcohol in a licensed premise in Australia unless they are 18 years or older. Only a parent or guardian (or a person authorised by the parent or guardian) may supply alcohol to a minor at unlicensed premises, for example, the family home. The supply must be consistent with the responsible supervision of the minor. 

See NSW Police Force - Alcohol and Young People for more information. 


Drinking alcohol is restricted in alcohol-free zones. This can include outdoor council managed parks and timed alcohol prohibited areas.

While operating a vehicle or machinery

A blood alcohol reading of 0.0% is required to operate a learner, provisional or probationary driver's licence, regardless of age. This is also required for certain jobs, including flying a plane or operating machinery. 

For full license holders, blood alcohol concentration needs to be below 0.05%. Even in this range, reaction time and ability can be severely impacted. You also cannot have any trace of illicit drugs in your system to operate a vehicle or machine.

Marketing and sales

Alcohol and other drugs are not allowed to be promoted in certain ways which align with advertising standards. Alcohol products must display the level of standard drinks and advise the product is not suitable for pregnant women on the label. 

Failing to comply with these laws could result in a caution, a fine, education sessions, a youth justice conference with parents and police, and a criminal penalty or jail time. 

See Vaping and smoking for more information about the laws of vaping and tobacco products.

Health consequences of drinking alcohol

The concern with drinking alcohol during adolescence years is that young people are more susceptible to damage from use due to developing brains and bodies. It can contribute to harming the individual as well as the people around them, both directly and indirectly. 

Alcohol use in adolescents and young people can have the following effects on their health and wellbeing: 

Short-term effects

These health effects can take effect almost immediately and last in the range of hours and days. They can include: 

  • slowing or depression of the central nervous system which affects mood, behaviour or self-control 
  • altered or risky behaviours 
  • hangovers (including fatigue, weakness, headaches, anxiety, and irritability) 
  • nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea  
  • conflict between friends and family 
  • diuretic effects leading to excess fluid loss and dehydration 
  • decreased sex drive and performance through a reduction in testosterone in men 
  • high intake of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor items (including poor food choices) 
  • sleep disruptions  
  • alcohol poisoning 
  • alcohol-related injuries.  

Long-term effect

These are the chronic health conditions that accumulate over time with the overuse of alcohol intake. They can include:  

  • ongoing problematic alcohol use 
  • alcohol-related brain injury or impairment 
  • lower immune response increasing susceptibility to illness 
  • heart disease 
  • high blood pressure 
  • cardiovascular disease 
  • fatty liver disease or alcoholic hepatitis 
  • ovulation and menstrual cycle disruptions for women 
  • poor pregnancy health outcomes, including Preterm birth, low birth weight and foetal alcohol syndrome.

Alcohol related deaths

  • Direct deaths due to harmful alcohol consumption, for example alcoholic liver cirrhosis and alcohol poisoning 
  • Indirect deaths due to alcohol consumption, for example heart failure, homicide, suicide and unintentional death

Did you know?

In Australia, alcohol is the second leading cause of drug-related death and hospital admission after tobacco.

The effects of alcohol on any individual will depend on a range of factors, including the amount consumed, how quickly it was consumed, how well hydrated the person is, food consumed during drinking sessions, a person’s weight, age, gender, ethnicity, physical condition and family history.

Health consequences of substance use

Similar to alcohol, there are a range of concerning health effects from a young person partaking in substance use or abuse.  None more so than the effects on their developing brain.  

As young brains develop, they become more efficient in obtaining and transferring information to different parts of the brain (through synapses). There is a natural ‘pruning’ of unnecessary synapses as children age and when substances are used at this crucial development stage, it can affect both short and long-term brain development. 

Short-term effects

The short-term effects of substance use are highly dependent on the drug consumed. There are seven main categorisations of drugs including stimulants (caffeine, cocaine, nicotine), depressants (alcohol), opioids (codeine, heroin), psychedelics (LSD), cannabinoids (cannabis), dissociatives (nitrous oxide, ketamine) and empathogens (MDMA). These have been classified according to the drug used, effect on the body, source of substance, legal status and risk status. 

See the Alcohol and Drug Foundation Drug Wheel to find out more about the short-term effects of specific drugs.  

Similar to alcohol-related consequences, these health effects can take effect almost immediately and last in the range of hours and days. They can include, but are not limited to: 

  • altered or risky behaviours 
  • drug comedowns (including shaking, muscle twitching, nausea, weakness, headaches, anxiety, and irritability) 
  • nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea  
  • reduced appetite 
  • conflict between friends and family 
  • mood swings 
  • sleep disruptions  
  • drug overdoses 
  • drug-related injuries and emergency department visits 
  • transmission of HIV/AIDS through bodily fluid exposure with drug injecting equipment or mothers transferring to infants during pregnancy. 

Long-term effects

These are the chronic health conditions that accumulate over time with excessive substance abuse. They can include but are not limited to:  

  • ongoing problematic substance use 
  • drug-related brain injury or impairment 
  • mental health concerns such as depression 
  • cognitive and memory problems 
  • lower immune response increasing susceptibility to illness 
  • dental health problems 
  • psychosis or psychotic episodes 
  • damage to veins due to repeated injections 
  • ovulation and menstrual cycle disruptions for women 
  • negative pregnancy health outcomes (including neonatal abstinence syndrome) 
  • juvenile delinquency 
  • addiction or dependency. 

Secondary risk factors from alcohol and other drugs

Alcohol and other drug use can also increase an adolescent’s chance of secondary risk factors. This can include subtle ripple effects like delayed career opportunities or more severe consequences such as being a victim or offender of sexual assault, violence, drink spiking, drink driving accidents, antisocial behaviour or mental health concerns.  

80% of child abuse cases involve alcohol and other drug use.

  • Drink spiking: occurs when a substance such as alcohol or other drug is added to a drink without the knowledge of the person consuming it. For more information, please see drink spiking in Emerging topics. 
  • Violence and physical assault: There is a strong correlation between violent episodes and alcohol or drug use. These can include sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse 
  • Drink or drug driving and motor vehicle accidents: Approximately 18% of young adults report having driven under the influence of alcohol in the past 12 months. The health effects of these substances while driving can range from traffic accidents involving other motor vehicles or pedestrians or significant injury or fatalities.  
  • Antisocial behaviour: including crimes in the community such as vandalism, graffiti, shoplifting or assault of strangers 
  • Academic difficulties: including a reduction in engagement, school attendance and potential dropout, especially at heavier intake of alcohol and drug use. 
  • Delayed or deferred career opportunities: including likelihood of full-time employment, length of employment and unemployment  
  • Damaged relationships with friends and family 
  • Mental health concerns: drugs and alcohol have a dual direction relationship with mental health concerns. At least 55% of people experiencing an alcohol or other drug use disorder have a co-occurring mental health condition. Some often use substances to help deal with mental illness and there often exists an increased risk of self-harm or suicide. 
  • Economic or financial loss: this includes both individual financial loss and societal costs such as workplace absenteeism, crime, healthcare and motor vehicle accident callouts. 

Annual estimated social costs in Australia

  • Tobacco use: $136.9 billion
  • Alcohol: $66.8 billion
  • Opioid use: $15.8 billion
  • Cannabis: $4.5 billion

Standard drink calculator

Learn how many standard drinks are in common glasses.

Last updated Monday 6th May 2024