Many people consider December 1st as signifying the beginning of the festive season and an abundance of social events.

However, this year it also signalled the introduction of new drink driving limits for adult drivers. Both individuals and industry are taking note of its timely introduction, prompting us to further consider how and what we are drinking around this time. 

Changes to the Land Transport Act 1998 have lowered the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit to 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood (i.e. a 0.05 BAC). Breath-test levels have also been lowered to 250 micrograms, bringing New Zealand in line with Australia. The previous limit was 80 milligrams for blood and 400 micrograms for breath, however the zero limit for drivers under 20 remains. Fines, demerit points and in serious cases, criminal prosecutions will confront those who break the new limits. 

These changes mean that consumers will need to understand how this will practically affect their alcohol consumption, and what decisions they make when they are planning to drive.  So how does the BAC level translate in terms of consumption levels and will it stop us from drinking a glass or two with dinner? The BAC level, and every individual’s reaction to alcohol, is influenced by a number of factors including, how much food they have consumed, their health, age, sex and ethnicity. So while measuring your standard drinks may be one way of keeping tabs on how much alcohol you are drinking, it isn’t the only factor to keep in mind. Research indicates that driving ability is impaired after consuming essentially any level of alcohol, so it is recommended that if you are planning to drink, you should be organising an alternative way to get home rather than driving. While many already adhere to this approach, there are people who are going to need to change their behaviour. That’s not to say enjoying alcohol at unplanned social situations will become a no-go in all cases, but it will be important to consider what you are drinking and how your body processes this alcohol.

The liver can only break down a certain amount of alcohol per hour, which for an average person is around one standard drink, that is 10 grams of alcohol. A standard drink roughly equates to 100ml of 13% ABV wine (that’s less than half a measuring cup!), one 30ml shot of 40%ABV spirits, or half a pint (280ml) of 4.5%ABV beer. Consuming one standard drink generally raises the BAC about 15-20 milligram per decilitre.

That being said, there are a number of initiatives helping consumers make the right choices in social drinking situations. Since the introduction of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012, it is now compulsory for on-licences to make water freely available to customers , and they must also supply or make available non-alcoholic products, low alcohol products and food. 

The lowering of the drink drive limit has also provided further incentive to innovate and promote light alcohol products. Beer is naturally lower in alcohol than other alternatives such as wine and spirits, however the brewing industry is also recognising the need to cater to consumers more cautious approach in their choice of beverage. 

For a product to be categorised as “Low alcohol” under the Food Standards Codes, it must contain 1.15% or less alcohol by volume.   However, an increasing number of products are playing in the “light” category which are higher than 1.15%ABV, but still offer a lower in alcohol alternative without compromising on the quality of your traditional full strength product. 

For on-licences in particular, a strategic approach is needed in light of the drink driving changes as consumers  look to the industry for guidance. Offering a variety of non-alcoholic, low and light alcohol products, as well as encouraging moderate consumption of higher alcohol products, will be key to helping consumers in their decisions.