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Alcohol: Victoria’s most harmful drug

“But aren’t drugs the real problem?” – I often get asked this question when talking about alcohol-related harms. I can understand why people query this, particularly when I look at the public conversation about illicit drugs. But the truth of the matter is that, despite cultural acceptance and its legal status, alcohol continues to be far more harmful than all other illicit drugs combined.

Let’s take a look at Victoria. From 2012-13, alcohol accounted for six and a half times more emergency department presentations than illicit drugs (with 7,744 instances attributed to alcohol and 1,206 to illicit drugs). In 2011 alcohol caused ten times as many deaths than illicit drugs (781 and 77 respectively). Alcohol-related hospitalisations and ambulance attendances also exceeded those for illicit drugs three-to-one in both instances.

Despite the significant harms that result from alcohol, the conversation in the Victorian media has focused on methamphetamines, particularly ‘ice’. Headlines have included Australia warned its ice problem is reaching pandemic proportions and Breaking Bad ‘coming to life’ as Victoria battles ice, MP says as parliamentary committee releases drug report. This coverage was driven in part by the parliamentary Inquiry into the supply and use of methamphetamines, particularly ‘ice’, in Victoria.

So in light of these headlines, let’s examine a comparison between alcohol-related harms and the harms caused by ‘ice’ in Victoria. In 2012-13 there were 11 times the number of ambulance attendances for alcohol than from ‘ice’ (14,851 involving alcohol compared to 1,342 for ice).

The Inquiry into ‘ice’ even mentions, on several occasions, that alcohol causes far greater harms than ‘ice’. Here is one example: “in terms of the physical, psychological and social consequences associated with its use, alcohol is by far a greater drug problem than most illicit drugs including methamphetamine”.

If the harms from alcohol are far greater than those from illicit drugs, why are drugs such as ‘ice’ currently the focus of discussions in Victoria?

There are two reasons.

First, politicians want the focus to be on specific illicit drugs, not on alcohol.

86 per cent of Australians have had a full serve of alcohol at some time in their lives, while 36.8 per cent of Australians have used an illicit drug. Politicians know that when they are talking about alcohol consumption – they are talking about a behaviour that is engaged in by a majority of Australians. They don’t want to do anything that might upset these voters so they often avoid the topic altogether, choosing instead to focus on illicit drugs which are used by far fewer people.

What politicians seem to have missed is that a vast majority (78 per cent) of Australians think that alcohol is a problem and 79 per cent of our population believe that more should be done to reduce alcohol harms. Instead they often incorrectly believe that this is an issue that it is too difficult to go near.

Second, the alcohol industry also quite likes the attention being on illicit drugs instead of alcohol.

Alcohol industry representatives are often quoted in the media as pointing to ‘drug-related’ harms and violence rather than ‘alcohol-related’ harms. This strategy allows the alcohol industry to downplay their accountability, diverting the focus away from the very real and substantial harms that result directly from alcohol and shifting the blame to illicit drugs.

The Australian Hotels Association (AHA) Victoria submission to the Inquiry into ‘ice’ is an example of these industry diversion tactics. Here is a direct quote from the submission: “The current inquiry by the Committee is welcomed as it can assess extent to which the often automatic assumption of ‘alcohol-fuelled violence’ is masking unacceptable and violent behaviours driven by drug use”. In other words, the Inquiry into ‘ice’ was a welcome distraction from the alcohol-fuelled violence that is known to occur all too frequently, a distraction that has worked well for the alcohol industry to-date.

Alcohol is a political issue

The Victorian election is fast approaching and there has been too little attention on the need to prevent alcohol-related violence and harms. But we can help to rectify this by showing the political parties that alcohol is a significant community issue that demands their attention and requires their immediate action.

Over the weekend FARE launched Alcohol: Victoria’s most harmful drug’ and as part of the campaign, we are asking you to help us to draw attention to significant harms that result from alcohol and need for action.

Visit FARE’s website to find out how you can take action to raise awareness of the need for action among Victorian politicians.

Caterina Giorgi

Caterina is the Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education.


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