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Why are spirits more ‘dangerous’ than other forms of alcohol?

“When you came and spoke to my year group you talked about the dangers of drinking spirits, particularly vodka. What I can’t understand is why spirits are worse than any other type of alcohol. If you drink one standard drink of beer or one standard drink of vodka isn’t that exactly the same amount of alcohol? Is one standard drink of vodka more dangerous? If so, why?”

All alcoholic drinks contain ethanol, commonly known as alcohol, and are usually classified as either beer, wine or spirits. In the past, teens who experimented with alcohol were more likely to drink beer or wine-based drinks. Today, some young people begin their ‘drinking career’ by drinking spirits (or pre-mixed spirits or ‘alcopops’), with vodka or vodka-based drinks being particularly popular among Australian teens.

So are vodka and other spirits more ‘dangerous’ that other alcoholic drinks like beer or wine? As you say, one standard drink of beer is exactly the same amount of alcohol as a standard drink of vodka. What’s the difference? The difference is that you can drink a shot of vodka much faster than a full glass of beer, resulting in far more alcohol being consumed in a much shorter time. It’s not that spirits are necessarily more dangerous per se, it’s just that they’re able to be easily consumed in a far more dangerous way …

It takes much less vodka, rum or whisky to get drunk than if you were drinking beer or wine. It could take just minutes (sometimes seconds) to drink a couple of shots of vodka (60mls), but it would take much longer to drink the equivalent amount of alcohol in beer (two 285ml glasses – 570mls). If a group of young people share a bottle of spirits between them in a session it’s important for them to be aware that they’re drinking the equivalent of 22 glasses of full-strength beer, 22 cans of mid-strength beer, more than 2 litres of red wine, or more than three bottles of champagne! That’s a lot of alcohol …

For most young people, if they attempted to drink that amount of other forms of alcohol they’d find it difficult (or impossible) to do so quickly. Often teens choose to drink spirits because you don’t need as much to achieve the desired effect but that is exactly where the danger lies. By the time teens do feel the negative effects, they’ve often drunk far too much and can then find themselves in very dangerous situations, including being poisoned, leading to a trip to an emergency department or worse.

If young people are going to drink alcohol (and of course, the best option is not to drink at all), it is best to drink a small amount over an extended period of time – not to drink a lot quickly. Realistically it would be highly unusual to find a young person who goes out and only drinks two shots of vodka, spreading them out over the evening. Spirits are usually consumed quickly and even a small amount can get a teen drinker with little experience into real trouble before they know it!

First published: April 2019
Reviewed and updated: August 2023

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