Confusion about alcohol risk widespread as new poll reveals Australia’s ‘binge-drinking culture’

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Nine in ten Australians consider themselves “responsible drinkers”, yet a quarter of people drink to get drunk at least once a month, new polling shows.

Key points:

  • Number of people who drink to get drunk has increased in the last decade
  • Alcohol-related harm has risen despite relatively consistent consumption rates
  • Experts warn confusion about alcohol risk is widespread

The same research has found more than two-thirds of Australians are unaware what constitutes risky drinking, and many are drinking well beyond recommended levels.

The 2019 Annual Alcohol Poll, released today by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), found only 31 per cent of people could correctly identify the number of standard drinks a person could consume to minimise long-term harm.

Australia’s National Guidelines for Alcohol Consumption recommend adults drink no more than two standard drinks per day to cut the lifetime risk of harm, and no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion to reduce the risk of alcohol-related injury.

The latest poll of more than 1,800 people found 79 per cent of Australians who consumed six to 10 standard drinks on a typical occasion considered themselves responsible drinkers, as did 64 per cent of Australians who drink to get drunk at least twice a week.

FARE chief executive Michael Thorn said the nationally representative online survey, now in its 10th year, confirmed once again that “Australia has a problem with alcohol”.

“Since 2011, there’s been an overall increase in the proportion of Australian drinkers who drink to get drunk from 35 to 47 per cent,” he said.

“These are very concerning figures, and show a significant increase from the time we first asked this question in 2011.”

He said terms such as “drink responsibly” and “drink in moderation” were commonplace in alcohol marketing but had little meaning and were diverting attention away from the true extent of alcohol harm.

“An overwhelming majority of Australian drinkers consider themselves responsible drinkers, yet a high percentage of those drinkers consume alcohol to get drunk,” he said.

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Alcohol harm up despite steady drinking levels

In Australia, 82 per cent of adults consume alcohol, and on average, men are more likely to drink than women.

The 2019 poll found the vast majority of Australian drinkers consumed alcohol on two days or less per week (76 per cent), while about a quarter of people drink on three or more days per week, and seven per cent drink daily.

Mr Thorn said rates of alcohol-related harm had increased despite poll results showing rates of alcohol consumption had remained relatively stable over the past decade.

“It’s not clear why this is. One explanation is that among people who drink, some drink very heavily … which explains why ambulance call outs, for instance, might continue to go up,” he said.

Key stats:

  • 51 per cent of drinkers consume one to two standard drinks on a “typical occasion”, 47 per cent drink three or more
  • 16 per cent of drinkers consumer six or more standard drinks on a “typical occasion”
  • 62 per cent of drinkers consume four or fewer standard drinks in a “typical week”
  • 12 per cent of drinkers consumer 15 or more standard drinks in a “typical week”

More than one-third of survey respondents indicated they had been affected by alcohol-related violence, and one in four parent respondents said their child had been harmed or put at risk of harm because of someone else’s drinking.

According to the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey, which involves a much larger sample size, Australians are drinking slightly less often than in the past, and fewer people are exceeding the lifetime risk guidelines.

Mr Thorn said although there had been a decrease in average per capita alcohol consumption, the reduction was “marginal”.

“Irrespective of the minor trends upwards or downwards, the totality of the harm is very significant — [alcohol] has been estimated to cost Australia about $36 billion per year.”

Two schooners of ale.
More than 80 per cent of Australians believe people have a right to know about alcohol-related harms. (Pexels)

Little understanding of health risks

According to FARE, nearly 6,000 lives are lost in Australia each year as a result of alcohol and more than 144,000 people are hospitalised.

While two-thirds of survey respondents reported being “comfortable” with the amount of alcohol they consumed, Mr Thorn said the “level of ignorance about health risks” had reached a crisis point.

“One in 22 Australians die from alcohol-related causes, yet the community remains in the dark about the range of life-threatening diseases that alcohol causes,” he said.

Only 52 per cent of survey respondents reported being aware of the link between alcohol use and heart disease, and fewer than half were aware of the link between alcohol use and stroke.

“We found only 29 per cent of people knew of the association between alcohol and cancer, and when it came to breast cancer, the number was even lower — only 16 per cent,” Mr Thorn said.

Anthony Shakeshaft from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), who was not involved in the research, said Australians were often surprised to learn that health risks increased as a result of what they perceived as low-level drinking.

“When people are made aware of the guidelines, they’re usually a bit shocked because [the levels] seem relatively low … and they probably do underestimate their level of risk,” Professor Shakeshaft said.

“People may have a tendency to think, ‘if I have half a bottle of wine every night, I’m probably OK’.

“But actually, that’s not what the evidence says. The evidence says if you drink that much, you’re clearly and significantly increasing you risk of harm.”

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More education, stronger campaigns

According to the poll, three quarters of Australians believe that more needed to be done to reduce the harm caused by alcohol.

“Alcohol has a very significant impact on this country, and we need dramatic changes to reduce the magnitude of that harm,” Mr Thorn said.

He said over the past decade, there had been a lack of investment in preventative health measures, including raising awareness of the short and long-term risks of drinking alcohol.

“There hasn’t been a national alcohol awareness campaign since ‘Don’t turn a night out into a Nightmare’ ended in 2010,” Mr Thorn said.

“Frankly, it’s disappointing that governments haven’t been acting in the way they should when alcohol causes so many problems and has such an impact on our health and welfare system.”

But Professor Shakeshaft said increasing awareness and education alone wouldn’t reduce alcohol consumption at a population level.

“All the evidence we’ve got says you need other strategies to do that — things like controls on advertising, price, availability,” he said.

The poll found 76 per cent of Australians supported health warning labels on alcohol products, and 80 per cent believed there were places where outdoor alcohol advertising should be banned.

Nearly three quarters of survey respondents said they did not think political parties should receive donations from the alcohol industry.