Why are spirits more 'dangerous' than other forms of alcohol?

Hi Paul, my name is Cassie. 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?

Thanks for the question Cassie. You raise an interesting issue and one that I try to make clear in my presentations but it is a little complex and sometimes young people can get confused with the message

All alcoholic drinks contain ethanol, commonly known as alcohol, and are usually classified as either beer, wine or spirits. In the past, teenagers who were experimenting with alcohol usually drank beer or wine-based drinks. That is not the case today, with many going straight to spirits (or pre-mixed spirits or 'alcopops'), with vodka or vodka-based drinks usually being the most popular among Australian teens.

So why are vodka other spirits more dangerous that either beer or wine? As you say Cassie, one standard drink of beer is exactly the same amount of alcohol as a standard drink of vodka. So what's the difference? The difference is that you can drink a shot of vodka much faster resulting in far more alcohol being consumed in a much shorter time.

Young people need to remember that it takes much less vodka, rum or whisky to get drunk than for beer or wine. It would only take 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 is important to remember that they understand that they are drinking the equivalent of 22 glasses of full strength beer, 22 cans of mid-strength beer, more than 2 litres of a cask of red wine, or more than three bottles of champagne.

For most young people, if they tried to do drink this amount of other forms of alcohol they would 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 have drunk too much and can find themselves in very dangerous situations, including alcohol poisoning which can lead 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), we want them to drink a small amount over an extended period of time - not to drink a lot quickly. Realistically it would be highly unusual to ever find a young person going out and drinking 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 into trouble before they know it!