Here’s yet another lesson in lobby groups over-egging commissioned “independent” reports to push their case for government intervention in their favour. Usually, it’s corporate interests pumping out this stuff. This time, it’s the anti-alcohol lobbyists at FARE.

A fortnight ago, FARE published some research it asked the “Centre for Alcohol Policy Research” at La Trobe University to conduct about online alcohol sales.

FARE claimed that the research showed: “high levels of risky drinking associated with rapid delivery services”; better age verification by alcohol websites was needed; and that delivery of alcohol within two hours of being ordered online should be banned.

Predictably, FARE got a Fairfax journalist to provide uncritical coverage of the research — Fairfax, the outlet that gave us Sydney’s discredited lockout laws, being the go-to place for public health lobbying.

Only problem was, the research didn’t exactly stand up to the claims made for it. It was a survey of just 528 participants, a sample so small that the study’s academic authors, quite appropriately, state that it is “not a representative population sample”.

Except, that’s what FARE suggests it as, claiming that the study “shows that younger risky drinkers are the biggest users of rapid delivery services, which enables them to extend existing drinking sessions”.

Pressed on this point, FARE told Crikey that the research was “an exploratory study… which could assist governments to better understand this growing alcohol market and legislate to safeguard vulnerable people.” So, “not a representative population sample” then.

According to FARE, the study “suggests” (a more accurate phrase than “shows”) “the convenience of ordering alcohol through on-demand delivery services is facilitating a pattern of heavy, risky drinking by younger Australians”.

Except, that’s not the “pattern” at all. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s National Drug Strategy Household Survey in late 2016 — involving nearly 24,000 households, or about 45 times the sample of La Trobe and properly weighted to accurately reflect the Australian population — shows significant, even dramatic declines in what is classified, rightly or wrongly, as “risky” drinking (more than four drinks on a single occasion) among young people: from 57% in 2001 to 42% in 2016 among 18-24 year olds.

It also showed a big rise — from 72% to 82% — in the number of teenagers abstaining entirely from alcohol, and a rise in the age of first alcohol consumption from 14.7 to 16.1 years. The “pattern” of “heavy risky drinking by younger Australians” is of dramatic declines.

Asked about the actual pattern, FARE did something it has done rarely or never before — actually acknowledge that young people are drinking far less than its constant claims of “heavy, risky drinking” suggest.

“The overall decline in young people’s consumption is welcome,” FARE admitted, before adding “18 to 24-year-olds remain the most likely age group to report binge drinking… at least once a month”.

FARE’s attack on online alcohol delivery is an example of how consumers can’t win with nanny statists — that there’ll always be yet another form of behaviour that paternalists want to modify. Instead of either driving to purchase more alcohol (which creates risks to themselves or others) or going to a public venue to consume alcohol (which increases the risks of physical assault, falls and other accidents) consumers ordering alcohol online remain home.

This may not seem significant, but drink-driving, assault and falls are some of the key risk factors that inform the development of alcohol consumption guidelines by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Consumers of online delivery services are able to remain at home, consuming alcohol less riskily, but FARE wants to ban online delivery of alcohol within two hours — it’s not quite clear how — thus removing this option to drink more safely. That only makes sense if you take the view that the only safe level of alcohol consumption is zero.

A final thing: on the basis of the survey, FARE complains that age verification is poorly enforced online. So true. The La Trobe study had no age verification process to ensure the accuracy of its sample.

Is Australia’s attitude to alcohol evolving? Send your thoughts to [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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