Drink Tank

Is the majority of alcohol consumed sensibly?

When we talk about risky drinking in Australia, we often focus on the proportion of people who drink outside the national guidelines. However it is also well worth looking at the proportion of alcohol that is consumed outside of these guidelines.  Is the majority of alcohol consumed sensibly?

The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends that people drink less than two drinks per day to avoid long-term harms from alcohol. In 2013, we surveyed over 2000 adult Australians about where and how much they drink – data that has never before been collected in such detail in Australia, jogging their memory about different drinking locations.  Quite a few people we surveyed – 28% of them, to be exact – drank more than the recommended level. Between them, these people accounted for a very large portion of all the alcohol drunk – 84% of it. In fact, if each of those people who drank outside of the guidelines reduced their consumption to two drinks per day the total of alcohol consumed in Australia would drop by 56%.  In other words, more than half of all alcohol consumed in Australia is consumed outside of the guidelines put in place to reduce long term harms from alcohol.

The alcohol industry is well aware of this – their advertising and promotions are often directed at these heavier drinkers. But they don’t ever talk about it – it doesn’t sound good that over half of their product is being sold to people who are risking their health with it.

What can be done to reduce the harm? One thing which many heavy drinkers are quite sensitive to is price.  Just as raising the taxes on cigarettes or on sugary drinks can improve people’s health by steering them towards doing something else with their money, raising the price of the cheapest alcohol will have an effect. Cask wine is often the cheapest kind of alcoholic beverage, and heavier drinkers are particularly likely to drink it – 76% of all cask wine was consumed outside of the guidelines – the highest percentage for any common type of alcoholic beverage.

One way of raising the price of the cheapest alcoholic beverages is to change the basis of taxation of wine and cider so they are taxed like beer and spirits – on the amount of alcohol they contain, not on the wholesale price. Another way is simply to say that alcoholic beverages cannot be sold below a minimum price per unit of alcohol.  Both these approaches have been recommended to Australian governments in the last few years, but for obvious reasons those making and selling the cheaper alcohol have been dead-set against these proposals, and have successfully shot them down.

But looked at from the point of view of the taxpayer, raising the taxes on cheap alcohol is a win-win proposition – in reducing the amount of heavy drinking, it will save on the resulting health costs. And at the same time the money it raises can be used by governments to reduce other taxes or to pay for needed schools and health programs.

Robin Room

Robin Room

Robin Room is a sociologist who has directed alcohol and drug research centres in the US, Canada and Sweden, and now in Australia, his native country. He is a Professor of Population Health and Chair of Social Research in Alcohol at the University of Melbourne; and Director of the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research at the Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre. He has been an advisor for the World Health Organization since 1975, has been president of the international scientific society for social alcohol research, and is Editor-in Chief of Drug and Alcohol Review. Professor Room’s research is on social, cultural and epidemiological studies of alcohol, drugs and gambling behaviour and problems, and studies of social responses to alcohol and drug problems and of the effects of policy changes.

Sarah Callinan

Sarah Callinan

Dr Sarah Callinan is a Research Fellow at the College of Science, Health and Engineering, School of Psychology and Public Health, at La Trobe University. Since starting in alcohol policy research in 2011, Dr Sarah Callinan has made a significant contribution to the field, both in Australia and around the world. She is the study director of the Australian arm of the International Alcohol Control Study and the database coordinator for the WHO/Thai Health Study on Alcohol’s Harm to Others. Dr Sarah Callinan has become a pivotal team member on multiple internationally collaborative research projects.


  • Making sense of It.
    Are we talking sensible, consumption of alcohol, given its intended or unintentional capacity to induce un-sensible or non-sensical behaviour?

    Will “Raising taxes on cheap alcohol create a win-win proposition” or reinforce a win-lose continuum.
    Will increasing the price (tax) change consumption or reduce alcohol consumption or further push those most at risk further into risk? Is raising taxes on cheap alcohol a win-win proposition –will it reduce the amount of heavy drinking, or save on resulting health costs. To reduce long term harms from alcohol could we look at the substance itself? Where does the responsibility lie? Manufacturers? Consumers? All of us?
    Will changing the culture of alcohol consumption improve health outcomes or just shift or create new problems?

    If we cant change the nature of alcohol associated with harm. Can the alcohol industry step up, take responsibility for its product? Can we change the culture of alcohol by changing the nature and effect of alcohol. Identifying the harmful elements of alcohol bio-engineering the substance, isolating and exploring capacity to change both the nature of alcohol and the cause and effect of responses to and disease associated with harm related to alcohol. Can we do whatever it takes?

    The price we pay for not providing health programs, real support, treatment and education from direct problems and problems associated with harmful drinking practices for young people or anyone, is continued intergenerational mutations of the same problems.

    The more conversations we have.. the more solutions we might find.

  • Hi Kathleen,

    Thanks for taking the time to read the article and comment. I think that first of all it’s worth looking at this idea of sensible consumption that you have mentioned. The National Health and Medical Research Council states that drinking more than two standard drinks a day increases an individual’s long-term risk of harm. These harms include a range of diseases including liver disease and some types of cancer. The main aim of the article that we published was to look at what proportion of alcohol consumption was consumed outside of the guidelines, that is, the alcohol that contributes to these harms. We found that the majority of alcohol is consumed above and beyond those two drinks per day.

    The reason we talk about price is because there is evidence to suggest that this would be a really good way to reduce harms. There is research to suggest that the heaviest drinkers drink more low-cost alcohol (1) and that an increase in price will target the heaviest drinkers (2). And when you think about the findings from our paper this makes a lot of sense. If you include their first two drinks, those drinkers who drink to long-term risk drink 84% of the alcohol – so these drinkers will feel the most impact from a change in price. Broad policy changes such as increasing price and decreasing the availability of alcohol are thought to be among the most effective ways of reducing harms from alcohol (3).

    1. Callinan, S. Room, R. Livingston, M., Jiang, H. (2015) Who Purchases Low-Cost Alcohol in Australia? Alcohol and Alcoholism, 50(6), 647-653. https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/50/6/647/193036/Who-Purchases-Low-Cost-Alcohol-in-Australia
    2. Holmes, J., Meng, Y., Meier, P. S., Brennan, A., Angus, C., Campbell-Burton, A., … & Purshouse, R. C. (2014). Effects of minimum unit pricing for alcohol on different income and socioeconomic groups: a modelling study. The Lancet, 383(9929), 1655-1664.
    3. Babor, T., Caetano, R., Casswell, S., Edwards, G., Giesbrecht, N., Graham, K., … & Homel, R. (2003). Alcohol: no ordinary commodity—a consumer’s guide to public policy. Alcohol: no ordinary commodity-a consumer’s guide to Public Policy.

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