Drink Tank

Ignorance and deception a dangerous cocktail

When it comes to protecting themselves from alcohol harm, Australians find themselves at a particular disadvantage.

As a nation we’re largely unaware of the link to cancer and other chronic disease from alcohol consumption, we lack the knowledge to reduce that level of risk and we face a ruthless alcohol industry hell bent on deliberately misleading us, just like the tobacco industry has done for years.

The Annual alcohol poll 2018: Attitudes and behaviours, conducted by YouGov Galaxy found that fewer than half of Australians are aware of the link between alcohol misuse and stroke (38%), mouth and throat cancer (26%) and breast cancer (16%).

Strike one.

Then there is the lack of knowledge that would keep us safe from harm in the first place.

Seven out of 10 Australians are aware of the country’s official drinking guidelines, which on the face of it seems okay. Trouble is, while Australians have a general awareness of the guidelines – we know they exist –  we’re in the dark when it comes to the content.

When we asked Australians about the content of the Guidelines, that is, the amount of alcohol that can be consumed to avoid harm, only one in four have much of a clue.

That’s akin to knowing what a fire escape is, but having absolutely no idea where it’s located or how to use it.

Strike two.

Our drinking guidelines, or to give them their official name, the Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol, are produced by the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council.

The guidelines recommend a maximum of two standard drinks a day to minimise long-term harm, and no more than four standard drinks to minimise short-term harm. For children and young people under 18 years of age, the advice is not drinking alcohol is the safest option. The same applies for women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy.

Produced by the brightest and most accomplished scientists and medical experts in the country, the straightforward and simple guidelines do, as their name suggests, provide Australians with the most informed, scientifically evidence-based way of reducing your health risks – or they would, if we actually knew what they recommended.

The problem here is twofold.

Successive Commonwealth governments have failed, in any meaningful way, to publicly promote the guidelines. The guidelines are a better kept secret than the Google search algorithm.

And the alcohol industry is desperate to keep it that way. Rather than promoting the official guidelines that would reduce people’s harm from alcohol, the industry promotes ‘responsible drinking’, a vague and deliberately misleading concept that conveniently ignores that when it comes to reducing your risk from alcohol, there is a number for it!

The alcohol industry goes beyond simply not promoting the guidelines. 61 per cent of Australians agree that the alcohol industry downplays independent university research findings linking alcohol consumption to a range of harm such as cancer and family violence.

That’s a blow to the industry’s credibility, but that effort to mislead and confuse Australians is ultimately harmful to consumers with over 5,500 deaths from alcohol every year.  Despite that third strike, Aussie consumers are far from down and out.

When advised that the World Health Organization recognises that alcohol is linked to more than 200 disease and injury conditions such as breast cancer, liver disease, mouth cancer and stroke, the vast majority of Australians (84%) agreed that they had a right to that information.

If there is a silver lining here, it is that Australians clearly recognise their rights as consumers to be fully informed of the harm associated with the products they consume.

There is a clear message here for government too.

Australians remain concerned about alcohol, want governments to do more, and demand, as consumers, the right to information that will keep them safe from harm.

Michael Thorn

Michael Thorn

Michael is the Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), and tweets from @MichaelTThorn.

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