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.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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