Teenage binge drinking hasn’t increased and therefore there’s something dodgy about the alcopops tax hike.

That line has recurred in quite a bit of media reporting and commentary about the tax hike over the past week or so, but it has a few flaws.

First of all, as ever, it just depends which statistics you quote and how.

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According to Dr Tanya Chikritzhs of the National Drug Research Institute in Perth, some of the clearest evidence for what has been happening with alcohol consumption by 12 to 17 year olds comes from the Australian Secondary Students’ Alcohol and Drug Survey.

The survey indicates that the proportion of youngsters aged 12 to 15 years who drank in the recent past did in fact decline significantly from 1999 to 2005. The same cannot be said for 16 to 17 year olds, however, where the proportion who drank in the week or month before the survey did not change significantly.

But the story does not end there. The survey also found that although the overall number of 12 to 15 year olds who drink declined from 1999 to 2005, among the group who drank in the recent past, more were drinking at levels which would put an adult at risk or high risk of short-term harm (such as a violent assault, falls, pedestrian road injury).

Longer term trends which go back to 1984 suggest that the current overall proportion of youngsters (12-17 years) who drink at such risky levels is at an all-time high.

A second flaw in the media focus on the detail of binge drinking rates is that it ignores the bigger picture: there is a wealth of evidence from a variety of sources – hospital emergency departments, police, and surveys of the broader community – to suggest that drinking among teenagers and young adults is a concern that merits some serious policy attention.

Thirdly, the figures now being cited about risky teenage drinking are likely to become redundant by midyear anyway, when new NHMRC guidelines for low risk drinking are due to be released. The estimates now being thrown around are based on levels of drinking which would place an adult at risk of harm (more than 6 standard drinks on any day for males and more than 4 for females) and do not take into account the psychological and physiological impact that alcohol may have on developing brains and bodies.

It is highly likely that the new guidelines will lead researchers such as Dr Chikritzhs to recalculate the rates of risky teenage drinking – and it’s a safe bet the direction will be upwards.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not trying to deter critical scrutiny of the tax hike.

But the real issue seems to be, from my chair at least, whether it’s the most effective strategy. And while experts like Dr Chikritzhs welcome it as a helpful step, they also argue that it would be better to have all alcoholic drinks taxed according to their alcohol content.

So let’s not miss the big picture while focusing on the small details.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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