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 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

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.


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