Australia’s heaviest drinkers drinking more, drinking habits gender gap disappearing

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 4th September 2013

Very heavy drinking among Australia’s top 10 per cent of alcohol drinkers has increased in the past decade while lighter drinkers have cut back further, according to a new analysis of Australian drinking habits since 2001.

Meanwhile, a separate study also to be presented today at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) Symposium has found that around the world traditional differences in male and female drinking levels have all but disappeared over the course of the last century.

Heaviest drinkers increasing alcohol consumption

The analysis of Australian drinking levels, which will be presented today at the NDARC Symposium, shows that the top 10 per cent of Australian drinkers are drinking between four and five per cent more than they were a decade ago. At the other end of the scale more people are abstaining altogether and lighter drinkers are drinking even less.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, looked at data from four successive National Drug Strategy Household Surveys since 2001. Each survey involved more than 20,000 Australians aged 14 and over.

Researchers found that on average Australians drink 10 litres of pure alcohol a year per head. The top 10 per cent of drinkers now account for 52 per cent of total alcohol consumed, compared with 49 per cent a decade ago. On average, the top five per cent of drinkers are drinking 140 more standard drinks a year compared with a decade ago.

Increase in alcohol-related harm

Dr Michael Livingston, lead author of the analysis and Post-doctoral Research Fellow at NDARC’s Drug Policy Modelling Program, said the results partially explain why authorities have seen a sharp increase in harms measured by hospitalisations and emergency presentations in many states and territories and by police data on alcohol-related assaults.

“The picture we have of drinking in Australia is conflicted,” Dr Livingston said. “Overall consumption has dropped but harms have increased. This new evidence about the divergence in habits between heavy and light drinkers goes some way to explaining the apparent contradictions,” he said.

“These changes may appear small, but increases in very heavy drinking have strong impacts on the risk of illness and injury,” Dr Livingston said.

“An effective policy response to these changes in drinking habits may be to target certain interventions such as brief interventions in health settings to the heaviest drinkers as a way to supplement broader responses such as increased taxation and reduced alcohol availability,” Dr Livingston said.

Gender gap in drinking habits closes

A second study to be presented at the NDARC Symposium found that global traditional differences in male and female drinking levels had virtually disappeared over the course of the last century.

The study, which will be presented by Dr Catherine Chapman and Associate Professor Tim Slade both researchers from UNSW who are involved in the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Epidemiology Stream, gathered and synthesised data from 75 studies in 59 countries, including Australia, among people born from the 1900s to the 1990s.

Men born in the early 1900s were over three times more likely to drink alcohol than women, according to the data. The study showed that this ratio had decreased so that women born in the 1990s are almost as likely as men to drink alcohol.

“Similar changes have occurred with respect to heavy episodic or binge drinking,” Dr Chapman said. “Indicators from Australia suggest the drinking patterns of males and females are in line with global trends,” she said.

Policy matters

The study by Dr Chapman and Associate Professor Slade found that policy made a difference to drinking habits. An analysis of 16 policies in nine countries demonstrated there was a relationship between the stringency of policies, the effectiveness with which they were in enforced, and resulting levels of consumption.

Other researchers from NDARC, including Dr Natacha Carragher whose research looks at the links between mental health or mood disorders and substance use, developed a “robust” tool to measure the stringency and enforcement of different alcohol policies. They used the tool to assess policies that have been implemented in nine countries in the Western Pacific Region – Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Each country was scored out of a possible 100 on the stringency and enforcement of its alcohol policies.

Countries with higher alcohol policy scores had lower per capita consumption, according to the study. Australia had the highest overall rating but was weak on specific policies such as advertising.

“This tool suggested that alcohol policies work in reducing consumption,” Dr Carragher said. “Australia has many strong policies, particularly in relation to motor vehicles, but still has significant gaps, particularly in relation to advertising policies. Evidence suggests that if we further strengthen these policies, we could significantly reduce risky drinking,” she said.

The policies around advertising of alcohol in Australia have been in the spotlight in recent times. In June 2013, Australian Food News reported that Western Australian Commissioner of Police Karl O’Callaghan had called for a ban on alcohol advertising during sport broadcasts, saying that “binge drinking and alcohol-fuelled violence” had reached “epidemic proportions”.

At the same time, a report from the independent Alcohol Advertising Review Board (AARB) found that self-regulation of alcohol advertising was “failing” and that there was an “urgent need for regulation on alcohol promotion”.

Australia's heaviest drinkers are drinking even more