tip off

A sober reflection on the so-called ‘alcohol epidemic’

The latest hard evidence shows that Australians are drinking significantly less, despite relentless claims of an “alcohol epidemic” from the public health lobby.

The world is in the grip of an “alcohol epidemic”, Seven’s Morning Show reported in March, with public health lobbyist Michael Thorn brought on to explain why Australians were drinking more now than in the 1930s. “There are rising and very high rates of youth alcohol-related problems in the young adult age group in Australia,” another public health academic declared in May. Alcohol consumption was “well and truly an epidemic”, the Victorian AMA president claimed in February, while calling for a national alcohol summit. The head of the Drug and Alcohol Council demanded measures to address the alcohol epidemic in November last year. Binge drinking had reached “epidemic proportions” the head of the Western Australian police force said last June.

Last week we got another opportunity to test these claims. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare conducts the National Drugs Strategy Household Survey every three years, involving over 24,000 people, and offers the most comprehensive snapshot of Australians’ behaviour and attitudes regarding drugs as well as sound data for long-term trends. And the AIHW has just started releasing the latest survey, from 2013.

So how goes the “alcohol epidemic”, the “rising rate of youth alcohol-related problems” and the “binge drinking” epidemic? Do we need a national summit on alcohol? According to the survey results, the number of Australians who don’t drink at all is now at the highest level ever recorded in the survey. And the incidence of people who drink every day is at its lowest.

What about levels of risky drinking? According to National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines, risky drinking is drinking two or more standard drinks a day. It used to be four standard drinks a day for men, but that was reduced in 2009 (we’ve previously discussed the silliness of the two standard drinks threshold, but we’ll let that slide for now). So how many Australians drink more than two standard drinks a day? That, too, has been falling significantly. This is the level of “lifetime risk” drinking in all age groups from 12 up.

The only group where lifetime risk drinking is increasing is 40- to 49-year-olds and that rose in 2013 from 22% to 22.5%. In five of the age groups, there was a statistically significant fall in 2013 levels — often on top of previous falls stretching back a decade. And the biggest falls were among young people in their teens and their 20s, who now consume less than 40-somethings.

OK, but how about binge drinking? Surely that’s out of control and an epidemic? That’s called “single-occasion risky drinking”, with “risky” deemed to be more than four standard drinks (again, let’s ignore the silliness of the definition). How many Australians “drink riskily” just once a month? Even at the bizarrely low threshold of the official definition of binge drinking, consumption is falling, particularly among young people.

And, again, in many cases these falls have been happening over a long period. Moreover, that data demolished a claim by the AMA that “one in three 14- to 19-year-olds drink alcohol in a way that places them at risk of an alcohol-related injury from a single drinking occasion at least once a month”. There’s plenty of other data on consumption. The number of people having more than 11 drinks in a session at least once a month — probably a lot closer to most people’s idea of a binge than four — fell by a statistically significant amount (to 7.3%) and across all but two age groups, including big falls among young people. The age of people’s first experience of alcohol has been rising since 2004 and rose yet again (and, again, by a statistically significant amount) to 15.7 years. The proportion of women not drinking at all while pregnant or breastfeeding continued to rise.

As the graphs show, many of these falls have been happening over and extended period. That’s in accord with what we know from Australian Bureau of Statistics data about the overall level of Australians’ drinking, which has fallen dramatically since the 1970s — one of the reasons a desperate Michael Thorn had to reach back to the Great Depression for a time when Australians drank less than they currently do.

So despite the apparently supernatural powers of the alcohol industry to convince Australians to drink, despite the reluctance of governments to increase the price or level of regulation of alcohol, despite the lack of national alcohol summit, despite the relentless, hysterical demonisation of young Australians that appears to be the stock-in-trade of the public health lobby, Australians are drinking less.

The AIHW also asked respondents about their views on measures to regulate alcohol. The results will be very mixed reading for the public health lobby: despite the incessant media and public health lobby focus on the social impacts of alcohol, Australians are unmoved. Support for increasing the price of alcohol fell in 2013, as did support for reduced trading hours, support for allowing only low-alcohol drinks at venues, support for raising the drinking age (from 50.2% to 47.6%), although support for restricting TV advertising to after 9.30pm and banning alcohol sponsorship has increased.

Strangely, all these results from the alcohol section of the survey last week got minimal media attention. But the evidence is clear: there is no epidemic, consumption is not increasing, and risky consumption isn’t increasing. Rather, it’s falling significantly. Time for a bit of honesty from the paternalists.

23
  • 1
    Northy
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Bernard you obsess over this subject like the Daily Tele obsesses over bike lanes or anything with a slight green tinge. Meanwhile, the ‘last drinks’ legislation in Sydney has led to a 50% drop in serious alcohol-related admissions at St. Vincent’s hospital (THE hospital for Kings Cross and the rest of Sydney’s inner-city hotspots). A stunning result that matches the experience in other areas where reduced trading hours have been introduced. Things that work.

  • 2
    Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    While I agree that the ‘last drinks’ legislation is a good idea the hype around alcohol is a bit too much and I agree with Bernard on a lot of his points. And yes I have seen firsthand what alcohol abuse does - both to myself and others (I’m an alcoholic and I’ve been sober for 12 years). The focus by some (and I’m thinking of the anti-cancer council specifically here) seems to be more on people who maybe have a little over the ‘standard drinks’ is unwarranted. The focus should be on those that are a danger to themselves and others, there are plenty of them out there.

  • 3
    Dez Paul
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Bernard. You’re something of a lone voice counteracting the puritan elements shaping public policy.

    The “standard drinks” measure is infuriating - and next to useless. People I know who work in a D&A rehab for Aboriginal men are constantly frustrated at “mainstream” notions of drinking patterns. “Standard Drinks” measures and “Binge drinking” definitions are impossible to apply in cultural contexts, let alone mainstream contexts. Yet funding bodies want reporting done this way and many screening tools are geared to this kind of framework. Absurd.

    But props and big ups to the AIHW for this study - lets see how FARE fares with it.

  • 4
    Bill Parker
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I am confused. Just where do these bodies collect their data?

    I see enough group drunken behaviour on weekend afternoons (male and female) to support my guess that drinking in excess is the done thing now for 25-30 year olds.

  • 5
    drsmithy
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Given the utterly outrageous cost of booze in this country, this shouldn’t really surprise anyone.

  • 6
    drsmithy
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    I see enough group drunken behaviour on weekend afternoons (male and female) to support my guess that drinking in excess is the done thing now for 25-30 year olds.

    The plural of anecdote, is not data.

    My anecdote is that young people today don’t drink any more than we did at their age.

  • 7
    Neil
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Drsmithy you have split my sides. “the plural of anecdote is not data”.

    Thank you.

  • 8
    Harold Rogers
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Bernard , like most journalists I have met they tend to drink a lot. Fair enough and I’ve done my share but please be brave enough to admit that the amount of violence caused by alcohol is overwhelming.

    You will never stop people using drugs however you can constantly raise awareness and preferably peer pressure on the youth by not shirking the fact that it is always a major problem and causes mortal and serious harm.

    Drunks are not happy people they are an insult to intelligence and the angry ones some times it may be best just to lobotomize them because of the lifetime misery they cause to children and others.

  • 9
    64magpies
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    For your own good is a persuasive argument that will eventually make a man agree to his own destruction”. Janet Frame

  • 10
    drsmithy
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Bernard , like most journalists I have met they tend to drink a lot. Fair enough and I’ve done my share but please be brave enough to admit that the amount of violence caused by alcohol is overwhelming.

    Please define “overwhelming”.

  • 11
    Harold Rogers
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    For reference:

    as much as 73 percent of all assaults
    (Briscoe & Donnelly 2001a; Doherty & Roche 2003;
    Poynton et al 2005). Alcohol is also a significant
    contributor to serious injury from assault. In a
    NSW study, two-thirds of patients presenting
    at an emergency department with injuries from
    interpersonal violence reported having consumed
    alcohol prior to the incident and three-quarters of
    these patients stated that they had been drinking
    at license premises (Poynton et al 2005).”

    These figures don’t include car accidents or self abuse and suicide.

  • 12
    Harold Rogers
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Its almost like the wife who turns up at the neighbours and has to prove continually that she been beaten by a drunk.

    And later says “He’s such a nice man when he doesn’t drink!”

    Some people just don’t want to know…I wonder why?

  • 13
    drsmithy
    Posted Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    “as much as 73 percent of all assaults (Briscoe & Donnelly 2001a; Doherty & Roche 2003; Poynton et al 2005).

    For reference, the full quote, which you have clearly quite deliberately and dishonestly abbreviated is:

    Nevertheless, Australian research estimates that a significant proportion of assaults involve alcohol; from 23 to as much as 73 percent of all assaults (Briscoe & Donnelly 2001a; Doherty & Roche 2003; Poynton et al 2005).”

    And you still haven’t defined “overwhelming”.

  • 14
    Chris Hartwell
    Posted Thursday, 24 July 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Take heart Bill Parker - not all of us in that group do so.

  • 15
    Harold Rogers
    Posted Thursday, 24 July 2014 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    so the survey didn’t suggest 73 % ?? Did you read the WHOLE survey or do you just argue for your own purpose?

    The dishonesty lies in your dogma (quite common these days on blogs) and for some reason total blind spot in regard to alcohol.

    Pointless exercise to discuss rational points.

  • 16
    drsmithy
    Posted Thursday, 24 July 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    so the survey didn’t suggest 73 % ??

    It “suggested” a range from 23 to 73%. A range which you neglected to specify.

    The dishonesty lies in your dogma (quite common these days on blogs) and for some reason total blind spot in regard to alcohol.

    What “dogma” ? I haven’t done anything here except point out that you’re dishonestly presenting information to suit your own biases and agenda.

    And you still haven’t defined “overwhelming”.

  • 17
    Bill Parker
    Posted Thursday, 24 July 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    DrS Of course anecdotal evidence is not data, but when one sees on a regular basis as tour bus driver in a wine/brewery district, the consumption of beer and wine in quantity (and the consequences)the conclusion is different.
    One group of 12, not content with drinking all day requested I stop at a bottle shop on the way home and bought spirits. I asked if this was regular for them. “Shit yeah, every Saturday, sleep it off Sunday”

    So as you say Chris H, there are some who don’t… but not many.

  • 18
    drsmithy
    Posted Thursday, 24 July 2014 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    DrS Of course anecdotal evidence is not data, but when one sees on a regular basis as tour bus driver in a wine/brewery district, the consumption of beer and wine in quantity (and the consequences)the conclusion is different.

    Wow. I don’t have the words.

  • 19
    Northy
    Posted Thursday, 24 July 2014 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    …our study (BOSCAR) shows that responding to alcohol-related crime is a major drain on police resources in NSW. Efforts to reduce alcohol-related crime would substantially increase the resources police have available to combat other forms of crime” - http://www.bocsar.nsw.gov.au/bocsar/bocsar_mr_ndlerf25.html

    The NSW Police Commissioner says that dealing with alcohol and its effects consumes about 70 per cent of a frontline police officer’s time” - http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/police-commissioner-lays-down-law-over-drunken-violence-20130330-2h03q.html#ixzz38NdeLbnT

    Earlier pub closing times key to reducing alcohol-fuelled assaults” - http://theconversation.com/earlier-pub-closing-times-key-to-reducing-alcohol-fuelled-assaults-23829

  • 20
    Sheila Park
    Posted Thursday, 24 July 2014 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Well done Bernard Keane. You’ve given those of us who can see it the statistical support for what seemed to be the case. Alcohol is not an evil. It is a very helpful and ancient source of pleasure and some health to most people. There is, as always, a group in the community who get traction for their own causes by frightening the naturally well behaved to restrict themselves in the belief that reducing their alcohol consumption more than their accustomed they will be enjoying a healthier life. Meanwhile those who unhappily have an addictive tendency are not helped by the proselytising and are helped by specific psychological interventions and /or the venerable AA. This is not to suggest that there are not useful things that work on a community basis. Just please try to ease up on the already worried who were never budding alcoholics in the first place.

  • 21
    drsmithy
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    The real problem is that rather than trying to address the fundamental reason(s) for people attacking each other, wowsers use the symptom as figleaf for their prohibitionist ideology.

    There are several European countries where alcohol is at least as culturally pervasive as it is in Australia - probably more - and a hell of a lot more accessible (lower prices, younger drinking ages). They do not have the scale of violence problems we (indeed, most of the Anglo world) do. Why ?

  • 22
    Sean
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Bernard about 50% of the time, and this is one of those times.

    The real reason that all the hyperbole has come out right now in the face of declining rates of drinking is simply that the campaigns and education have worked too well, people are drinking less and possibly surfing the internet more, and there is now a whole bunch of public health and medical advisory types who need more work to do, so they decide to get together and drum up a scare. They need to be needed. They need to invent syndromes and problems as public health improves.

    Further, while some people here are pulling out their worst case scenarios and worst possible cases of people having a couple of drinks, but are overlooking the reasons alcohol remains a legal drug — it is an excellent social lubricant, it is actually an extremely powerful anxiolytic, and in fact without an after work drink or a glass of wine or two over dinner, I suspect the suicide and depression rate might actually be a lot higher across society. I think politicians worry more about what might happen if people stop drinking.

    Sure the problems are in over-indulging and in late night hot spots some action should be taken. I would like to see the actual numbers of people showing up at St Vincents though — instead of 4 people showing up on a Friday night with some sort of alcohol-related problem, it’s 2? Is that an epidemic of violence? A local shopkeeper I spoke to in Kings X said a lot of pubs are closing on many nights now, and a lot of people have lost their jobs — and the 2 cases of violence that hit the papers so sensationally were perpetrated by 2 parolees. So they’re not happy about the perceived political over-reaction when other solutions might have been possible.

  • 23
    Sean
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    The curse of speaking English

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-10-03/hamilton-curse-of-speaking-english/4993940

Womens Agenda

loading...

Smart Company

loading...

StartupSmart

loading...

Property Observer

loading...