Drink Tank

Wastewater doesn’t lie

The numbers are in – alcohol is the highest consumed drug in all states and territories!

A recent report into substance use by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) found that alcohol was the most used drug out of all legal and illegal substances tested in every capital city and regional area across Australia. This information comes as no surprise to me but I’m sure the ACIC was quite shocked.

The research was commissioned on the advice of the National Ice Taskforce and in line with the current efforts to overcome what has been labelled the ‘ice epidemic’. The media are so consumed with the ‘war’ on ice that they are ignoring the blatant and recurring problems that alcohol has on our communities. What’s more is the report showed that the second most used substance per person was tobacco, with ice coming in third place. Ice is having negative impacts on our communities and should be addressed accordingly, but this report proves that it is not the number one problem. Alcohol is.

What was interesting is that the report showed no difference in average alcohol consumption between people living in the city and people living in rural Australia. Alcohol is affecting all of us equally and it is a serious community health issue.

It has become the social and cultural norm for Aussies to kick back and have a drink with friends, but lately our attitudes to drinking have changed and taken a turn for the worst. Alcohol leads to more violence than any other drug and it costs tax payers over $36 billion annually. Research has shown that alcohol causes over 5,500 deaths, 157,000 hospitalisations, 70,000 assaults and is linked to 24,000 domestic violence cases a year. [i],[ii]

The study tested wastewater samples from 51 sites across the country with the hope of identifying community drug problems. Wastewater analysis has been used internationally and is considered a reliable tool for measuring and estimating drug use within local populations. What this study showed was the average individual consumption of alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamine derivatives, cocaine, oxycodone and a number of other substances. In the simplest terms, the study was able to calculate the average daily consumption or dosage per person by testing the wastewater samples and dividing it by the number of people in the catchment area. The testing failed to detect cannabinoids in the wastewater.

This is the first report to come out of the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program with another two reports expected to come out later this year. There is a clear substance use and abuse problem within Australia but the government needs to recognise the important role that alcohol plays in this issue. We need to address the elephant in the room. We need to address alcohol harm and in doing so we will start to address all the other substance use problems. Especially because the majority of individuals using illicit substances are also consuming alcohol.

People don’t want to acknowledge the fact that alcohol causes harm, but the evidence is there. Wastewater doesn’t lie.


[i] Chikritzhs, T, et al. (2003) Australian Alcohol Indicators: Patterns of Alcohol Use and Related Harms for Australian States and Territories 1990-2001, National Drug Research Institute and Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre, Melbourne.

[ii] Laslett, A-M., Catalano, P., Chikritzhs, T., Dale, C., Doran, C., Ferris, J., Jainullabudeen, T., Livingston, M., Matthews, S., Mugavin, J., Room, R., Scholtterlein, M. & Wilkinson, C. (2010) The Range and Magnistude of Alcohol’s Harm to Others. Fitzroy, Victoria: Victoria, AER Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, Eastern Health.

Madeleine Day

Madeleine Day

Maddie is a Senior Policy Officer at the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE). She has a background in social change, research, communications and community development.

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