Aussies deserve credit for getting it right on alcohol
6 August 2018
TAX revenue from alcohol is falling as, contrary to what you may have heard, Australians adopt a far more moderate drinking culture.
Other factors contribute, like a loophole that sees wine avoid alcohol excise entirely and there being no increase in Wine Equalisation Tax since its inception in 2000.
But there's more to it than that.
As individuals, and as a society, Australians today are better equipped and more informed about responsible alcohol consumption than ever before. This is evident in alcohol consumption per capita falling, decade on decade, for more than 40 years.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics our drinking habits have improved markedly. Across all alcoholic beverages, 9.7 litres of pure alcohol was available for consumption in 2015-16 for every person aged over 15; that's a 25% drop since peak consumption at 12.9 litres in the mid-1970s.
For beer's part, over the same period the ABS records that consumption has fallen from around 9.5 litres per capita to 3.9 litres today – a drop of almost 60%.
At that time beer made up three-quarters of all alcohol consumed. Today, it's 39.9% with wine at 37.5%, spirits 18.8% and cider 3.8%.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfares reports that 83% of Australians now drink within recommended guidelines.
Underage drinking and misuse continues a dramatic decline. The AIHW reports that 82% of underage teens in Australia do not drink any alcohol at all – up from 54.3% in 2004, while the age of a first drink continues to increase from 14.7 years 2004 to 16.1 years in 2016.
The proportion of teens drinking at levels that increase their lifetime risk has fallen from 6.4% in 2004 to 1.3% in 2016. And that those at risk of drinking harm on a single occasion has fallen from 17.2% in 2004 to 5.4% in 2016.
While policy attention must, naturally, continue to focus on underage drinking, these patterns show we are heading in the right direction.
Likewise, significantly fewer pregnant women in Australia are drinking. The rates of abstention among pregnant women have increased dramatically, up from 40% in 2007 to 55.6% in 2016.
At face value, it would be horrific if 44.4% of women continued drinking while pregnant. However, on closer inspection, of those women who did consume alcohol during pregnancy 97.3% consumed no more than 1-2 standard drinks.
The AIHW found that the percentage of women consuming at higher rates was too small to record with accuracy. However, this small cohort must be a target for early intervention and education to prevent incidences of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.
The World Health Organisation reports that Australia is at the low end of the spectrum of binge drinking.
Australia ranks at 31 out of 37 similar countries and scores less than half of the heavy episodic drinking rates of Finland, Greece, Austria, Ireland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belgium, Estonia, Portugal, Iceland, Sweden, United Kingdom, Hungary, Denmark, France, Russian Federation, Luxembourg and South Africa.
Over the past decade we have seen the popularity of low- and mid-strength beers grow markedly. Mid- and low-strength beers now account for a quarter (24%) of all beer sales in Australia.
In fact, Australia is a world leader when it comes to mid-strength brews; major brewers Carlton & United Breweries, Lion Beer Australia and Coopers Brewery continue to invest in these options to give people greater choice and more control.
Beer is the only alcohol category that provides credible options for people to moderate their alcohol consumption. The responsible drinking message has overwhelmingly sunk in.
These trends in official government figures over time do not support the hyped-up notion of a crisis of increasing alcohol consumption. On the contrary, responsible consumption is the norm in Australia.
Published in the Herald Sun newspaper on 6 August 2018. Brett Heffernan is CEO of the Brewers Association of Australia.
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