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.

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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.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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