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.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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.

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

  1. paddy

    What can I say but cheers Bernard. Such an excellent piece.

  2. Coaltopia

    Excellent article, yes, thanks BK.

  3. wilful

    I quite enjoy this little hobby horse of yours BK, always quite amusing. Far more amusing and easy to agree with than your ones about compulsory voting and unrestricted free speech.

  4. Holden Back

    Now you’ve gone and introduced facts into the debate – again! – just not fair.

  5. Phen

    Nice. I was just contemplating a Friday arvo beer too!

  6. StarrWinkle

    Personally I think 2 drinks a day Every Day is a lot, and few people would keep it up. If I drink I drink to get drunk – sounds bad right? So I drink maybe once every few weeks or sometimes go months without drinking. Drinking habits change with age and incomes and lifestyles.

    The “cost to society of vice” accounting is always very dodgy. For a start do they subtract the savings that come with premature deaths? Old people are a huge expense to society. If you don’t do that you aren’t genuine. It’s common for them to claim income earned is a benefit to society – yeah those people who knock on your door selling solar are a net financial benefit to society. A lot of jobs are scratching each other’s backs, if one dies there’s one less back to scratch. Crazy accounting.

    Good to see people hitting back against the nannies.

  7. zut alors

    I’m guessing that Fairfax article wasn’t placed adjacent to a pitch from one of their brewery advertisers.

  8. Rohan

    We’ve grown increasingly anally retentive about health over the last couple of decades. Mostly it’s a good thing, and reflects improvements in science and the level of societal awareness around activities potentially harmful to quality and longevity of life.

    But the annoying flipside is organisations like FARE making shit up to remain relevant. I see a lot of parallels with those peddling denial about our falling crime rates.

  9. Jimmy

    StarrWinkle – “Personally I think 2 drinks a day Every Day is a lot” You have to remember these a standard deinks you are talking about, It’s about 1.5 Stubbies or a decent glass of wine.
    A beer when you get home from work and a wine with your tea and you are well over.

  10. mikeb

    @jimmy. A standard drink is around 0.7 of a stubby (depending on the alc% and stubby volume) so when you look at a stubby label it will say “contains 1.4 standard drinks” – or similar. Wine is only around 100ml per standard which isn’t very much at all. A glass of red at my house would probably top 3 times that amount!

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