Alcohol is our main drug problem, but few know the dangers

Legal, plentiful and easy to access, alcohol is the main drug of concern in Australia.

mature couple holding wine-filled glasses

Legal, plentiful and easy to access, alcohol remains the main drug of concern in Australia, but most of us have no idea of the harm it does.

A new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reminds us of the impact of booze.

“Alcohol was the principal drug of concern in 36 per cent of treatment episodes. It was the main or an additional drug of concern in 48 per cent of cases,” said AIHW spokesperson Dr Gabrielle Phillips.

The report, Alcohol and other drug treatment services in Australia 2018–19, confirms that alcohol is “the most common drug of concern for clients of publicly funded specialist alcohol and other drug treatment services”.

But polling from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) revealed that most Australians don’t understand what constitutes risky drinking and consume well beyond recommended levels.

FARE’s 2019 Annual Alcohol Poll found only 31 per cent of people could correctly identify the number of standard drinks a person could consume to minimise long-term harm.

The poll found 79 per cent of Australians who regularly consumed six to 10 standard drinks considered themselves responsible drinkers, as did 64 per cent of Australians who drink to get drunk at least twice a week.

FARE chief executive Michael Thorn told the ABC “Australia has a problem with alcohol”.

“Since 2011, there's been an overall increase in the proportion of Australian drinkers who drink to get drunk from 35 to 47 per cent,” he said.

“These are very concerning figures and show a significant increase from the time we first asked this question in 2011.”

Mr Thorn said the use of terms such as “drink responsibly” and “drink in moderation” in marketing were obscuring the true extent of alcohol harm.

“An overwhelming majority of Australian drinkers consider themselves responsible drinkers, yet a high percentage of those drinkers consume alcohol to get drunk,” he said.

The poll found that 82 per cent of adults consume alcohol, 76 per cent consumed alcohol on two days or less per week and nearly a quarter of people drink on three or more days per week.

Australia's National Guidelines for Alcohol Consumption recommend adults drink no more than two standard drinks per day, and no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion to reduce the risk of alcohol-related injury.

Mr Thorn said rates of alcohol-related harm had increased despite alcohol consumption remaining stable for 10 years.

“Irrespective of the minor trends upwards or downwards, the totality of the harm is very significant – (alcohol) has been estimated to cost Australia about $36 billion per year.”

FARE estimates 6000 lives are lost in Australia each year because of alcohol and more than 144,000 people are hospitalised.

“One in 22 Australians die from alcohol-related causes, yet the community remains in the dark about the range of life-threatening diseases that alcohol causes,” Mr Thorn said.

Only half of poll respondents knew of the link between alcohol use and heart disease, less than half were aware of the link between alcohol use and stroke and only 29 per cent knew of the association between alcohol and cancer.

FARE is critical of the lack of a national alcohol awareness campaign.

“Frankly, it's disappointing that governments haven't been acting in the way they should when alcohol causes so many problems and has such an impact on our health and welfare system.”

Anthony Shakeshaft, from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), told the ABC Australians were often surprised by the health risks associated with drinking.

“When people are made aware of the guidelines, they're usually a bit shocked because (the levels) seem relatively low… and they probably do underestimate their level of risk,” Professor Shakeshaft said.

“People may have a tendency to think, 'if I have half a bottle of wine every night, I'm probably OK'.

“But actually, that's not what the evidence says. The evidence says if you drink that much, you're clearly and significantly increasing you risk of harm.”

The AIHW also released a report Alcohol, tobacco and other drugs in Australia, analysing research into alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic, finding that while total spending on alcohol increased in March 2020, the pattern reversed in April 2020.

Australian National University research found that among Australians who drink alcohol 20 per cent drank more and 27 per cent drank less since the spread of COVID-19.

Women aged 35 to 44 reported the greatest increase, but men often drank less because their consumption was usually in pubs and clubs, closed during the pandemic.

Professor Nicholas Biddle, from the ANU, told the ABC that women with increased caring responsibilities, and men who had lost their jobs, had drunk more alcohol during the pandemic.

“One of the potential reasons for a person decreasing their level of alcohol consumption is the lack of social opportunities to do so, due to the impact of physical distancing measures and the temporary closure of pubs and other drinking establishments,” the ANU research found.

“A real policy challenge could be those whose alcohol consumption increased during the early stages of the spread of COVID-19 maintaining their new level of consumption as the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic commences.”

To access free and confidential advice about alcohol and other drugs, phone the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline: 1800 250 015.

Are you concerned about your or a close friend’s alcohol consumption? Do you buy into the recommended limits or believe they are unrealistic?

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    To make a comment, please register or login
    30th Jun 2020
    Drinking copious quantities of alcohol is looked on with pride in Australia. Advertising builds that belief and Australians go along with it. Education should help but some form of regulation may be needed.
    30th Jun 2020
    Here we go again, the wowsers, they attacked smoking and now it's alcohol's turn, oh well might as well go sit in the corner and suck my thumb....
    30th Jun 2020
    So health care professionals are in your eyes are, just wowsers? It's attitudes like this that maintain the problem with excessive alcohol intake. Yes, I do drink in moderation in case you wondered but after 38 years in the health sector I have seem the impact of excessive alcohol and the cost to families and the tax payer who have to pay for the long term health problems as consequence.
    Horace Cope
    30th Jun 2020
    Again we see lots of statistics without a base given as to how many were polled nor the different demographics. These I would suggest are essential to checking the veracity of any survey. I must say that YLC spends too much time hanging around academics who are probably getting government grants to research different topics and then produces rubbish like this.
    30th Jun 2020
    No doubt Horace your questions would be answered if you had read the report referenced in the article. To give you a couple of answers the survey was conducted by an independent polling organisation 'YouGov Galaxy' and, without quoting all the qualifiers detailed for the survey, the report includes "The survey sample is 1,820 respondents. A sample size of 1,820 allows accuracy within ±2.3% at the 95% confidence interval"..
    As the harm caused by alcohol has been known for decades this report can hardly be dismissed as "rubbish".
    30th Jun 2020
    "As the harm caused by alcohol has been known for decades this report can hardly be dismissed as "rubbish"."

    But then neither can it be classified as 'new' findings either!
    30th Jun 2020
    Actually KSS, if you read the report you may find it takes the attitudes and responses of people today (or at least the date of the survey) on the use and misuse of alcohol and the latest medical/scientific information at this time, not the attitudes and information of previous years. You are right, the findings on the harm of alcohol are not new but the impact and attitudes of the community change over time. this survey informs appropriate responses to counteract the harmful effects. You could make the same observation about other harmful products such as asbestos or Roundup etc etc.
    Karl Marx
    30th Jun 2020
    Agree Tanker. Should treat alcohol like tobacco in some cases. Maybe incorporate warnings with horrific crash scenes caused by DUI, Cirrhosis of the liver pics, deadly scenes of domestic violence caused by drunken partners etc etc on all containers & packaging.
    30th Jun 2020
    Good reminder thanks for the article. In my friend's circles many nowadays don't drink anymore, so the trend I think is going in the right direction. The lockdown might have changed this a little, but awareness of the dangers of alcohol is rising.
    pedro the swift
    30th Jun 2020
    Most Australians and brits have no idea of responsible drinking. See how many young people go out on weekends or any day just to get drunk, Its their idea of a good time. If they haven't gone into a drunken stupor, thrown up or started a fight it wasn't a good night!
    30th Jun 2020
    Australia is the gold medalist of irresponsible drinking. Most Brits wouldn't even get to the race, never mind the podium!
    30th Jun 2020
    Alcohol and Gambling is the main cause in Australia for DOMESTIC VIOLENCE end of story.
    30th Jun 2020
    No question, play a very big part in it for sure but there are also other factors that go into it that are too complex to go into in here and would take it off-topic.
    30th Jun 2020
    These health experts should go to France and Italy - even children commonly drink wine / water mix from a very young age. French drink wine every day and they don't seem to be any worse off than us.

    Tags: safety, health, alcohol,

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