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Lost in the world of liquor research


Philip White drills down to the detail of a popular new alcohol industry report on drinking habits and compares it with a much more scathing one from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

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Bacchus only knows how much Australia’s alcohol-consumption patterns and habits have changed in 50 years. As a Kanmantoo kid who worked days in the mines and drank most nights in The British, driving home along the half-built, abandoned freeway each night after a solid five-hour sesh on the spurruts, this writer personally can vouchsafe such news.

But as for the last 10 years? There was a frisson around the media earlier this week at the release of a report, Australian Drinking Habits – 2007 vs 2017, based on information gathered by market research outfit GALKAL for the alcohol industry group DrinkWise.

The campaign goals of DrinkWise are to “promote a generational change in the way Australians consume alcohol”, and “increase the age that young Australians are introduced to alcohol, as evidence has shown that alcohol can impact the development of the adolescent brain”.

DrinkWise Australia gets its cash from government and its members, which include giant transnational alcohol manufacturers Bacardi-Martini, Beam Suntory, Diageo, Lion, Moet-Hennessey and Pernod Ricard. Aldi and Coles are in there, Coca Cola, Carlton United, Coopers, and big winemakers Treasury and Accolade.

The bloke-heavy board reflects this membership but includes several impressive community leaders from backgrounds in law, science and maths under the chairmanship of former chief commissioner of Victoria Police Neil Comrie.

There are two women, Professor Niki Ellis representing the occupational health world, and the ABC identity and erstwhile Liberal Immigration Minister and Senator, Amanda Vanstone.

Prominent Adelaide publican Peter Hurley represents the Australian Hotels Association. Peter has ABC links, too, as a former board member there. The former Wudinna publican has built a mighty arsenal of big suburban pubs and has been a tireless lobbyist for the hotels and gambling industries. His jewel is the Arkaba, a name which I foolishly presumed had Islamic/Arabic roots, where it indicates strength and might, as on horseback, but turns out to be a contraction of arkabatura, a term used by the Adnyamathanha people of the Flinders for “rich country”.

See how easy one can get lost in the world of liquor research?

The key message of the DrinkWise report seems to be encouraging for those who think Australians drink too much. The number of total abstainers has doubled and most folks are drinking more modestly.

“We are now a society more defined by moderation than excess,” it reassures.

“For the most part Australians have a positive relationship with alcohol. Having a drink to unwind, enjoy a meal or to socialise with family and friends remains part of how we see ourselves …

“For those drinking more, almost a fifth attribute added life stressors for increased consumption,” it suggests, but “alcohol abuse is not a significant personal concern for most Australians. For the most part having a drink remains an enjoyable part of a sociable lifestyle – that complements a meal and allows people to socialise and relax.”

The report stresses that personally we are principally concerned with obesity, fitness and an excess of sugar, while “the issue of drinking too much alcohol doesn’t bother over three-quarters of Australians – most are either ‘taking care of how they drink’ or don’t feel they need to do anything about their drinking”.

Unsurprisingly, housing affordablity, unemployment, domestic violence, illegal drug abuse and other health-care issues appear to concern twice as many of us as alcohol abuse.

Considering the composition and raison d’être of DrinkWise, this triumphant “she’s right cobber” mood seems aimed directly at sating the criticism of the highly-organised anti-liquor lobby.

While underage drinking is declining – 59 per cent of 16-17 year-olds are abstainers – it indicates that 31 per cent of 18-24 year-olds are still sinking more than five standard drinks in a session. This is called “a cohort of concern”. Those aged 45-54 are the next group of bother.

Relative to pubs, it’s fascinating, but again perhaps unsurprising, that 63 per cent of us now do most of our drinking at home, with pub and club drinking down to 9 per cent of the sector, and restaurant and café drinking at 8 per cent.

Fifty-five per cent of drinkers do it while watching television, 51 per cent during meals, and 45 per cent while relaxing and socialising.

What we consume is changing. A little. Bottled wine and full-strength beer drinking are both up 1 per cent; bottled spirits, liqueurs, bladder pack wine and alcoholic pre-mixed cans are down a tad.

So what does all this mean? First, it appears that the manufacturers and vendors of ethanol are highly efficient at researching their markets. There is much detail that is presented, I suspect, more vaguely in this document than the forensic detail such thorough and expensive research might have revealed.

In its scathing 2016 report Alcohol-related Harm, The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) reported that “alcohol misuse substantially contributes to social disruption, injury and death … In Australia about half the reported cases of interpersonal violence, domestic violence and sexual assault are related to excessive alcohol consumption … Alcohol-fuelled incidents are also a factor in up to two-thirds of police callouts and around half of homicides.”

The DrinkWise paper does not venture into this territory.

Each week, the RACS found, on average, more than 100 Australians die and at least 3000 are hospitalised as a result of excessive alcohol consumption.

“Annually, over 70,000 Australians are the victims of alcohol-related assaults, of which 24,000 are victims of domestic violence. In addition, almost 20,000 children across Australia experience substantiated alcohol-related child abuse.”

While there are many contradictory estimates of exactly what this costs the Australian taxpayer in dollars, this RACS report says the “total cost to society of alcohol-related problems in 2010 was estimated to be $14.352 billion”, while the “estimated cost of alcohol’s negative impacts on others was estimated at $6.807 billion”.

“The same year, the Australian Government received an estimated $7.075 billion in total alcohol tax revenue.”

As for the havoc alcohol wreaks in Indigenous communities? It’s still an arkabatura for the ethanol merchants.

The RACS document says the “rate of alcohol-attributable death among Indigenous Australians is about twice that of the non-Indigenous population, with a particularly strong association apparent between alcohol use and suicide … From 2000-2006, 87 per cent of intimate partner homicides among Indigenous populations were alcohol-related.”

DrinkWise doesn’t go there.

Maybe these two august bodies could get together for a sociable drink. Pull up a couch, watch a cooking show, and chat about working together on the next report, no?

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