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Alcohol – a complex health problem

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Alcohol misuse and harm is not a new issue.

It was highlighted as a subject of the National Health Priority into Injury Prevention in 1996, and has remained part of the National Drug Strategy since 2001.

Every year, during periods of higher alcohol consumption such as Easter, issues of alcohol misuse and harm make their way back into media headlines, reminding us that alcohol is still a significant health issue in Australia.

At our most recent AMSA National Council meeting (22 to 24 March), it was clear that medical students are dissatisfied with current strategies to tackle the problem.

In passing the Alcohol Misuse and Harms Policy, numerous anecdotes were shared at the meeting of proximate encounters with alcohol-related violence and injury.

The prevalent view was that current strategies are blatantly ineffective and insufficient.

Furthermore, students agreed that the Australian community needs a change in perspective. Alcohol-related harm is no longer simply a medical issue; rather, it is a complex, multi-faceted social and cultural issue that requires a more comprehensive biopsychosocial approach. It is time for an emphasis to be placed on education and cultural change within the community.

Many young people between the ages of 14 and 18 years report that they intend to get intoxicated on most or every occasion that they consume alcohol, with one in three drinking in a way that places them at increased risk of alcohol-related injury at least once per month.

Consequently, on any given Saturday night, alcohol-related harm is responsible for up to one in three emergency department admissions.

The AMSA policy also identifies the need for more research in this area.

There is a clear lack of consolidated information about how best to manage alcohol-related harms in the community. Furthermore, the community requires evidence-based and strict criteria to assess and monitor the effectiveness of current strategies.

To assume that alcohol is the sole cause of street violence in Kings Cross on a Saturday night would be naïve, but the relationship between alcohol and violence has been consistently shown.

This includes violence in the community, but also extends to violence within the home. Alcohol is a contributing factor in up to 73 per cent of assaults, and 4.5 per cent of Australians aged 14 years or older report having been physically abused by someone under the influence of alcohol.

Australian medical students would like to see a targeted and evidence-based alcohol strategy, with a stronger focus on the pervasive health impacts of excessive alcohol consumption that extends beyond the pharmacodynamics of the substance itself.

Furthermore, we would like to see greater consultation with young people in the development of these strategies.

Australia is in desperate need of a change in the culture surrounding alcohol consumption.

This change, as with any social revolution, can only be longstanding if it is driven by young people. Changing the attitudes of the youth of Australia, while simultaneously limiting the burdens currently faced by society, is the only way to have a lasting improvement in Australia’s drinking culture and health.   

In recent months, AMSA has been asked a number of times to comment on alcohol use, misuse and harms.

As young people and consumers with a keen interest in health, Australian medical students contribute a unique perspective on the broader conversation about alcohol use and misuse, and can provide useful insight in discussions about what can and should be done.

Australia urgently needs an effective alcohol strategy, developed in consultation with young people, that targets the pervasive health impacts of alcohol misuse and harm.

For more information, please see AMSA’s Alcohol Misuse and Harms Policy at: http://media.amsa.org.au/policy/2014/201403_Alcohol_Misuse_and_Harms_Pol…

Jessica Dean is the President of the Australian Medical Students’ Association. Jessica is a 6th year Medicine/Law student at Monash University. She is currently completing an Honours Project in Bioethics at The Alfred. Follow on Twitter @AMSAPresident or @yourAMSA

 

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