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Feb 8, 2013

Bottoms up: the non-crisis of Australia's alcohol consumption

The constant claims about the dangers of rising alcohol use in Australia don't match reality. Crikey fact checks some of the statements made by the wowser lobby.

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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

Look closely and you’ll always see some careful phrasing around the issue of how much we’re drinking: the preventive health industry won’t come out and say that alcohol consumption is growing, but they’ll claim alcohol consumption among young people is on the rise, or binge drinking is on the rise, or that Australia has a high rate of consumption compared to other countries, or as we saw above, alcohol consumption by women is rising. But the general tenor is that the alcohol problem is getting worse.

Wrong. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in fact shows daily drinking fell from 2004 to 2007 and fell again from 2007 to 2010. Indeed, the government’s own Preventative Health Taskforce published the following table, which shows daily alcohol consumers falling and non-drinkers rising:

But, curiously, the accompanying text in the report makes no mention at all of that. ABS data similarly shows per capita consumption of alcohol in Australia falling significantly — by nearly a quarter — since the 1970s.

Nor is drinking by young people on the rise. Remember the moral panic Kevin Rudd and Nicola Roxon tried to whip up early in Labor’s first term about what they claimed was an “epidemic” of binge drinking? It was rubbish. The same Preventative Health Taskforce report showed short-term risky drinking by 14-19 year olds, both male and female, falling significantly between 2001 and 2007.

And what about young women? Well, they were binge drinking less too, according to the taskforce report. And the 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found female drinking down for daily, weekly and less than weekly, and found a rise in ex-drinkers and non-drinkers.

Statement: the damage from alcohol consumption is growing

All of which means the most recent tack tried by the preventive health industry, to claim that alcohol is causing massive economic damage (as part of its campaign to lift alcohol taxation), comes heavily caveated. Even accepting the industry’s assumption-laden calculations about the damage caused by alcohol (putting it at $36 billion a year) and “harm to others” at $15 billion, the claim that “alcohol-related harms in Australia are increasing” made by FARE plainly doesn’t stand up: alcohol consumption is falling; the only way for the preventive health industry to somehow claim that harms are increasing is to again alter their assumptions to produce still-higher outcomes from their commissioned modelling.

Bear all this in mind next time you see yet another media report about the alcohol crisis apparently besetting Australia.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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51 comments

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51 thoughts on “Bottoms up: the non-crisis of Australia’s alcohol consumption

  1. drsmithy

    Moreover, as a piece of anecdotal evidence, I have no recollection of such behaviour 40 odd years ago.

    My father certainly does. Before RBTs were commonplace, people of his generation would think nothing of spending 2-3 hours at the pub and then driving home, or heading back from a regional office visit on a 3 hour drive with a six pack or two on the passenger seat to drink on the way. The massive reduction in drink driving over the last few decades is probably the single biggest reason the road toll has improved so much.

    Personally speaking, twenty years ago it was not at all unusual for high school students (15+ years old) to be heading out to parties with a bottle of rum or a carton of beer to drink, generally with “don’t ask, don’t tell” tacit approval from their parents. With the growing prevalence of helicopter parenting and media beatups, I struggle to believe teenagers today are drinking any more, or even as much as, I did in my youth, and from listening to my parents (and relatives only ~10 years older), we certainly weren’t doing anything they hadn’t.

    My experience is that the more exposure someone has to alcohol in daily life from a younger age (eg: a glass of wine with dinner starting in the mid-teens), the more likely they are to be able to drink sensibly, know how to pace themselves, know when they were getting drunk (which can vary substantially from person to person, drink to drink and even event to event) and most importantly know when to stop. Living on campus at Uni with a lot of exchange students coming through, we saw it over and over again – the ones who got into the most trouble with alcohol were the Americans and the ones the least, Europeans.

  2. Percy Pigeon

    I don’t like having the risks of my drinking pointed out to me.That I should even have to hear about this is just wrong.

    I drink alcohol and I think I am a responsible and good person.

    It can’t be that be that I might be wise to alter my behaviour to fit my perception of myself. That might involve a moment or two of honest self reflection, and my ego defences won’t allow that!

    So any talk that might prod me to reconsider my drinking habits must be overblown, dishonest nonsense from a bunch of self righteous ascetic nanny staters.

    The health benefits of alcohol – oh, so proven beyond doubt, and so obviously more important than the harms I’m likely to do to myself or others – particularly others because who cares about those people anyway everyone should be responsible for themselves and not get in the way where my fist can punch them or my car can hit them or my hands can grope them.

    The harms of alcohol are definitely overblown, and certainly nowhere near as dangerous and detrimental as people discussing the harms of alcohol. That I will not stand for.

    As for that Dr Haber Paul – stop oppressing me with your recounting of your own experience. As a doctor in a public hospital who sees the traumatic and damaging results of alcohol on a daily basis, you are clearly biased and probably have some sort of ulterior agenda, like wanting to free up time and resources to deal with human ailments that are less preventable than alcohol related harms.

    I’m a good responsible person, and your recommendations and cautions can’t make me do anything I don’t want to do. So there, nanny staters!

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