Despite hysteria about an epidemic of alcohol abuse and the dangerous influence of the alcohol lobby, Australians are continuing to reduce their consumption of alcohol, and young Australians, in particular, are drinking at a fraction of the levels of a decade ago, the country’s most authoritative health survey explained this week.

But strangely, the country’s array of public health bodies failed to mention the survey, just as they ignored the initial results from the survey when they were released in July. This week the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released detailed data from its 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, after an initial release in July. The detailed information now available from the survey of over 23,000 Australians is remarkable for the extent to which it contradicts the consistent narrative from public health lobbyists, that alcohol consumption is at epidemic levels, that binge drinking among young people is out of control, that alcohol harm is at record levels.

In particular, the 2013 data repeatedly show statistically significant falls in alcohol consumption across different groups:

  • the number of under-18s who don’t drink at all has risen from 63.6% in 2010 to 72.3%, up from 56.5% in 2007 and 54.3% in 2004;
  • the number of all adults who don’t drink has risen from 17.9% in 2010 to 19.5%, and that’s on top of a rise from 15.9% back in 2007;
  • under-18s drinking more than two drinks a day is down to 2.6% from 4.2% in 2010, 5.4% in 2007 and 6.4% in 2004;
  • the number of 18- to 24-year-olds drinking two drinks a day or more fell nearly 10 points to 21.3%;
  • the demographics 12- to 17-year-olds, 18- to 24-year-olds, 25- to 29-year-olds and 30- to 39-year-olds all recorded statistically significant falls in the number drinking four standard drinks or more on one occasion (the risible public health lobby standard for binge drinking) at least once a month;
  • the number of people over 12 consuming more than 11 standard drinks on one occasion at least once a year or at least once a month fell, in both cases, a statistically significant amount; and
  • the age at which people reported having their first drink rose a statistically significant amount, to 15.7 years (it was 14.4 in 1998).

In fact, the report is littered with the distinctive hash symbol that denotes a statistically significant change since 2010, and not a single one shows an increase in drinking. And often times, they follow statistically significant falls between 2007 and 2010 and from 2004 to 2007.

The number of people reporting incidents of harm while drinking also fell significantly, with both low-risk and risky drinkers reporting lower levels of physical or verbal abuse or being scared while drinking. The number of people reporting they had physically or verbally abused people or damaged property fell significantly as well. Remember, these are all falls large enough to be considered statistically significant, in addition to the overall downward trend evident in so much of the data produced by the AIHW.

Unsurprisingly, none of this was mentioned in limited media coverage of the material. Instead, the focus was on how particular socio-economic groups differed from the mainstream, with a focus on rural and regional communities and their higher rates of drug use. But the data shows progress there as well: poorer people are smoking less; indigenous people are drinking less.

As for the response of public health lobby groups like the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education or VicHealth, well, you’ll look in vain on their websites for a media release welcoming the data or their executives offering comment to the media either in July or this week. It doesn’t fit the narrative of alcohol epidemics, out of control violence and spiralling harm from alcohol, which the public health industry depends on to maintain the flow of taxpayer money to it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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