The latest national drugs survey shows alcohol consumption hitting new lows — and dramatic falls in public support for measures to restrict alcohol consumption.

In what will be a bitter blow for anti-alcohol campaigners in the public health lobby, Australia’s most authoritative health survey, the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, shows significant falls in alcohol consumption in the last three years, despite claims from lobby groups like the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education about an “alcohol epidemic” and a predatory alcohol industry destroying Australian lives. 

The first report of the 2016 survey (with a sample size of nearly 24,000) was released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. It shows a continuation of the long-term trend to consume less alcohol among Australians. There are statistically significant falls in the proportion of people over 14 drinking daily and weekly, and a statistically significant rise in the proportion of people drinking less than weekly. There’s also been yet another rise in the level of people who never drink — now 14.5%, compared to just 6.5% in 1991.

[Sorry, nanny statists, alcohol is good for you]

The falls are particularly noticeable among younger Australians, despite relentless demonisation of the young for binge drinking. The proportion of young Australians engaged in what is formally termed single-occasion risky drinking — that is, consuming more than four standard drinks on any one occasion — at least once a month has fallen: there’s been a significant fall in underage drinkers doing so at least once a month to just 5.4%; there’s also been a massive five percentage point fall among 18- to 24-year-olds compared to 2013. The proportion of under-30s not drinking at all has also risen; for example, the proportion of 16 and 17 year olds who never drink has risen more than 11 percentage points to 56.8%; there’s also been a big rise in the proportion of 18- to 24-year-old drinkers who never binge drink.

Other statistically significant changes include

  • the level of underage drinkers engaging in very high-risk drinking (11 or more standard drinks on a single occasion) has fallen, as has the level of 18- to 24-year-olds;
  • the age at which both males and females first try alcohol has increased to 16.3 for males and 16 for females;
  • the proportion of people experiencing alcohol-related verbal or physical abuse, or “put in fear” or any other type of incident, fell across all categories; and
  • the proportion of people aged over 14, and aged over 18, engaging in “lifetime risk drinking” (more than two standard drinks a day) fell.

Even the recent trend for older drinkers to consume more has been curtailed: people in their 30s, 50s and 60s are all drinking at lower risk levels; the level of abstainers among people in their 40s, 50s and 60s also rose, albeit not by statistically significant levels.

More galling for the alcohol opponents, there have also been statistically significant falls since 2013 in the level of support for anti-alcohol measures.

(Click to enlarge)

Noticeably, there’s been a big fall in support for restrictions on late-night alcohol trading, perhaps reflecting the draconian impact of the Baird government’s punitive lockout laws in Sydney.

The falls in support for alcohol restrictions come despite the anti-alcohol lobby ramping up efforts to exploit heightened community concerns about domestic violence by portraying alcohol as a primary cause of violence against women.

Most significantly, there have been falls in support for proposals to ban alcohol advertising of sporting events and television advertising of alcohol — two areas where public health lobbyists had pushed hard in recent years in the hope of pushing the federal government, the media and sports bodies into censorship.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey