Australians’ relationship with alcohol is riddled with dysfunction. Nine in 10 drinkers nationwide consider themselves responsible, but half drink to get drunk.
This was laid bare in yet another report — the 2019 Annual Alcohol Poll.
We might be drinking about the same as in the past, but we are drinking differently: mostly less often but with more intensity.
In the past eight years, the survey has revealed an overall increase in the proportion of drinkers who drink to get drunk from 35 per cent to half — close to six million Australians. Bizarrely, the poll found 79 per cent of those who drank to get drunk consider themselves “responsible drinkers”. It is a kind of alternate reality.
In regional, rural and remote areas, there is more risky drinking and higher accompanying concerns about the harm it causes.
Research published in the Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health last month showed the nation’s biggest drinkers are likely to be middle aged men living outside major cities.
The Alcohol Poll 2019 report found people in the regions are drinking more, more often and while they are more concerned about the effects on drivers, domestic harmony and injury, somehow the connections between them are not being made.
Despite admitting to drinking more than the recommended levels, two thirds of respondents said they were “comfortable” with that. The risk messages are simply not getting through and people are not joining the dots between their drinking and the possible outcomes for themselves or others.
The poll, conducted for the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), reveals there has been no improvement in understanding about what constitutes low and high-risk alcohol consumption.
FARE chief executive Michael Thorn calls it the “decade of deception”, and believes not enough has been done to teach Australians about the risks of alcohol.
In the survey, two thirds of drinkers couldn’t identify how many drinks tipped over into what experts say increases risk of harm but the same proportion believed Australia has a problem with alcohol abuse. Go figure.
There hasn’t been a co-ordinated, non-industry national alcohol awareness campaign in nine years and the National Health and Medical Research Council is in the throes of updating the Australian alcohol guidelines.
Perhaps because drinking is not just socially accepted but often expected, we jump at any study that appears to justify our sipping and quaffing. The so-called J-shaped curve has been cited as justification for drinking moderately for more than 20 years.
This has led to the prevailing notion drinking two standard drinks a day was better for heart and brain than not drinking at all. But that’s probably hogwash, because the development of the J-curve did not factor in details such as the non-drinker being a recovering alcoholic, obese or otherwise not very healthy.
Drinking that half a bottle of wine each night with dinner or having a few beers after work each day does increase our risk of harm in a major way. An analysis of studies in The Lancet last year found no alcohol intake improved health.
The 2019 national alcohol report says about 6000 Australians die each year as a result of alcohol-related causes, and more than 144,000 people spend time in hospital each year because of it.
Information and education must improve. We need more help to help ourselves.