We may be on the cusp of a major change in how Australian policymakers look at taxes on alcohol.
According to a new study by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, Australian drinking habits have become more polarised, with a small number of heavy drinkers drinking more heavily but a vast majority of people drinking less.
Researcher Michael Livingstone studied Australian alcohol consumption survey results from 2001 to 2010 and found that the top 10% of drinkers were consuming about 90 more standard drinks per person per year by the end of the decade, while consumption among the rest of the population declined.
By the end of the decade, 10.5% of the population reported drinking 20 or more standard drinks in a single session at least once a year, compared to 9% in 2001.
But 3% fewer people were partaking in “risky drinking”, which researchers defined as five or more standard drinks in a single session. This means a greater number of people are taking a more sensible approach to their alcohol consumption.
Approaches to minimising the harmful impacts of alcohol consumption have generally centred on population-wide measures: increasing taxes and reducing availability to dampen demand.
But with demand falling anyway, researchers are starting to consider more targeted measures that focus on problem drinkers.
According to market researcher IBIS World alcohol consumption per capita has, in fact, fallen steadily in the past six years, dropping 7.7% from a 2007-08 peak of 10.4 litres to 9.6 litres this year.
Liquor industry insiders pin the fall on new mid-strength beers and a growing preference for premium drinks like ciders and boutique beers that often come with a quality-over-quantity mentality.
It could be explained as drinking less, but drinking better.
Changes in Australian demographics have also played a part in driving average alcohol consumption down. One industry expert notes that there are now more professionals who may less likely to get drunk with their colleagues than tradespeople.
NAB’s agribusiness economist Vyanne Lai notes that increasing numbers of migrants from China and India could also be lowering the average. “Anecdotally, the new additions to the population pool may be less inclined to consume large volumes of alcohol,” she told Business Insider.
And in a research paper published this month, Livingstone and colleagues suggest that “harmful alcohol use has become less acceptable among the broader Australian community”, based on their finding that Australian newspaper articles had become more disapproving about alcohol use from 2000 to 2011.
In an article on The Conversation, Livingstone recommended that policymakers consider implementing rules that target heavy drinkers, instead of today’s population-wide initiatives like raising alcohol tax.
“These findings provide some support for polarisation of consumption and suggest the need for policy interventions aimed particularly at the heaviest drinkers in society,” he reported. “But they are interesting and go against a lot of what we think we know. The basic tenet of alcohol research is that when there are shifts in drinking trends, everyone changes in the same direction,” he said.
“However, given what we also know about increasing rates of harm and steady rates of per capita consumption, this might be part of the reason why we are seeing liver cirrhosis and emergency room presentations going up while our level of drinking across the population is showing no real increases,” said Dr Livingston.
“I think what it implies is we need to think about interventions that focus on heaviest drinkers rather than just the whole population.”
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