Bottoms up: the non-crisis of Australia’s alcohol consumption
Another day, another report on the evils of alcohol. In a Fairfax article, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre yesterday declared ”young women are now abusing alcohol at levels similar to men”.
Michael Thorn of FARE — an organisation about which Crikey will have more to say in coming weeks — was asked to weigh in, and condemned the “increase in drinking levels among women”. He then, at least in his quoted remarks, complained about “the way alcohol is promoted as a social norm” (not that it is a social norm, and has been so for millennia, but is promoted as such), which sent a bad message to young people — “parents drinking, the actions of their peers and the messages they’re getting about alcohol through advertising”.
The preventive health agenda for alcohol has been clear for some time: it’s the remorseless demonisation of the product, with the intent of doing to alcohol what was so successfully done to tobacco — to so discredit it that the community eventually supports draconian regulation to limit its use.
The signal difference — that the mere use of tobacco is harmful whereas the vast majority of alcohol consumers consume it safely and, indeed, obtain health benefits from it — is deliberately overlooked.
Part of the demonisation is to persistently claim that alcohol consumption is increasing (indeed, is “out of control” or an “epidemic”), that new threats are constantly being discovered, that there is “an urgent need for action to challenge Australia’s harmful drinking” as the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol puts it. So, let’s check some of the “facts” about alcohol in Australia …
Statement: drinking more than two standard drinks a day is “risky drinking” and you should avoid alcohol altogether
Herein lies a tale. Most people will recall the National Health and Medical Research Council 2009 revision of its alcohol guidelines, when it rather spectacularly jumped the shark by deciding to amend its recommendation of four standard drinks a day for men and two for women to two a day for everyone.
What’s less understood is exactly what the basis for the NHMRC’s recommendation is. It’s based on lifetime risk assessment: how likely are you to die from anything alcohol-related at a certain level of consumption. Anything — dying while driving drunk, getting into a drunken fight, or eventually dying from an alcohol-related disease. And the basis for the two drink a day recommendation is 0.9% for men — as in, less than 1% of people consuming two drinks a day will die from an alcohol-related cause at some point.
And if you don’t drink-drive, and you don’t get into fights when you drink, then the risk is halved. The risk is 0.4% for alcohol-related diseases for men and women at two standard drinks a day. The risk increases the more you drink, obviously — thus the phrase “risky drinking”. But how “risky”? You have to drink eight drinks a day in order to get over 5% risk of alcohol-related disease if you’re a male, and over five drinks a day if you’re a woman.
To put that into context, as the NHMRC itself notes, “the lifetime risk of dying in a traffic accident associated with driving 10,000 miles a year in the US has been calculated to be about one in 60,” or about 1.7%.
But, say you wanted to live a risk-free life. Say four people in 1000 wasn’t good enough odds for you. Why not just not drink? That’s what bodies like the Cancer Council recommend.
Well, if you don’t drink, you miss out on the health benefits of alcohol, particularly if you’re older: as the NHMRC explains in its guidelines, light to moderate drinking (up to two standard drinks) has been shown to reduce cardiovascular risk, improve bone density and, perhaps, protect against dementia.
Some preventive health industry figures claim these benefits are “contested” but currently there are no substantiated, up-to-date studies that have disputed the long history of studies demonstrating health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption.
Statement: alcohol consumption is growing
Page 1 of 2 | Next page