Substance Use (Use of Alcohol & Other Drugs)

The consumption of alcohol and other drugs, and their related harms, cost our society hundreds of millions of pound every year, and have therefore been identified as significant public health and social issues in Northern Ireland.

Preventing Harm, Empowering Recovery – A Strategic Framework to Tackle the Harm from Substance Use (2021-31)

Co-produced by the Department of Health (DoH), working in partnership with key stakeholders and service users, "Preventing Harm, Empowering Recovery" was published in September 2021, following approval from the NI Executive. It has direct links with the Executive’s strategic framework for public health, Making Life Better, and with the Mental Health Strategy 2021-31.

Underscored by five population-level outcomes, the vision of the substance use strategy is that people in Northern Ireland are supported in the prevention and reduction of harm and stigma related to the use of alcohol and other drugs, have access to high quality treatment & support services, and will be empowered to maintain recovery.

Alcohol Consumption: Advice on Low Risk Drinking

The four UK Chief Medical Officers published guidelines in 2016 on how to keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level. These guidelines provide the most up-to-date scientific information to help people make informed decisions about their own drinking. The guidelines have been tested through public consultation and market research to ensure the advice is as clear and useable as possible.

Weekly Drinking Guideline

This applies to adults who drink regularly or frequently i.e. most weeks.

The Chief Medical Officers’ guideline for both men and women is that:

• To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis.

• If you regularly drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread your drinking evenly over 3 or more days. If you have one or two heavy drinking episodes a week, you increase your risks of death from long term illness and from accidents and injuries.

• The risk of developing a range of health problems (including cancers of the mouth, throat and breast) increases the more you drink on a regular basis.

• If you wish to cut down the amount you drink, a good way to help achieve this is to have several drink-free days each week.

Single Occasion Drinking Episodes

This applies to drinking on any single occasion (not regular drinking, which is covered by the weekly guideline)

The Chief Medical Officers’ advice for men and women who wish to keep their short term health risks from single occasion drinking episodes to a low level is to reduce them by:

• limiting the total amount of alcohol you drink on any single occasion

• drinking more slowly, drinking with food, and alternating with water

• planning ahead to avoid problems e.g. by making sure you can get home safely or that you have people you trust with you.

The sorts of things that are more likely to happen if you do not understand and judge correctly the risks of drinking too much on a single occasion can include:

• accidents resulting in injury, causing death in some cases

• misjudging risky situations, and

• losing self-control (e.g. engaging in unprotected sex).

Some groups of people are more likely to be affected by alcohol and should be more careful of their level of drinking on any one occasion for example those at risk of falls, those on medication that may interact with alcohol or where it may exacerbate pre-existing physical and mental health problems.

If you are a regular weekly drinker and you wish to keep both your short- and longterm health risks from drinking low, this single episode drinking advice is also relevant for you.

Pregnancy & Drinking

The Chief Medical Officers’ guideline is that:

• If you are pregnant or think you could become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to your baby to a minimum.

• Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby, with the more you drink the greater the risk.

The risk of harm to the baby is likely to be low if you have drunk only small amounts of alcohol before you knew you were pregnant or during pregnancy.

If you find out you are pregnant after you have drunk alcohol during early pregnancy, you should avoid further drinking. You should be aware that it is unlikely in most cases that your baby has been affected. If you are worried about alcohol use during pregnancy do talk to your doctor or midwife.

Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP)

A public consultation ran from February to May 2022 and invited views from across society on proposals to introduce legislation to enact Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) of Alcohol in Northern Ireland. Everyone with an interest was encouraged to read the policy document and respond to the consultation. A summary analysis report based on the consultation responses has been produced to help inform the next steps in relation to MUP.

Social costs of alcohol misuse

Excess alcohol consumption costs Northern Ireland up to as much as £900m each year. A report into the social costs of alcohol misuse in Northern Ireland was commissioned by DoH.

Directories of services

Each of the Northern Ireland Drug and Alcohol Coordination Teams (DACTs) has produced a directory of services available in their area.


FRANK offers free and confidential advice about drugs, all day, every day, to anyone, whether it's children, parents or just the curious. The helpline is available in 120 different languages and a translator will be available if necessary. The FRANK website has masses of information and tips on how to deal with drugs and can refer you to local drug services.


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