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Australians shedding their hard drinking image

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Drinks sales are forecast to decline as growing numbers of Australians cut back on their consumption or quit altogether, in a sign that higher excises and lock-out laws are helping to curb the nation’s drinking problem.

Industry analyst IBISWorld expects per capita alcohol consumption, which has already dropped to a 50-year low, will continue to decline until at least the middle of the next decade as people heed health messages and respond to higher prices, drink-driving laws and other measures by reducing their intake.

The analyst predicts that by 2024 consumption will drop to 8.54 litres per person, a fall of almost 20 per cent from the start of this decade.

“We’re seeing increasing health consciousness among the under 30s, while at the other end of the market people are also drinking less,” IBISWorld senior analyst Andrew Ledovshkik told The Australian Financial Review.

The analysis echoes the findings of an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report showing that consumption is declining, with 22 per cent reporting they had abstained from drinking in 2013 (up from 17 per cent in 2004), and the proportion who have never had a full drink reaching 14 per cent.

Even rates of risky drinking are declining.

The AIHW reported an 11 per cent drop in the rate of Australians drinking at risky levels on a single occasion (from 2950 to 2640 per 10,000 people), and 13 per cent drop who indulge in risky drinking over a lifetime, from 2080 to 1820 per 10,000.

The declines have paralleled changes to the cost and availability of alcohol.

The excise on beer and spirits is indexed twice a year and for some beverages has reached $81.21 per litre of alcohol. Wine is treated differently and is subject to a so-called equalisation tax currently set at 29 per cent of its wholesale value. Public health advocates are critical of the arrangement and argue that alcohol should be taxed at a minimum unit price that applies regardless of the beverage.

Several State governments, most notably New South Wales and Queensland, have also acted to restrict outlet trading hours and impose lock-outs in response to alcohol-fuelled assaults and murders.

The Institute said the results suggested that strategies including increasing the price of alcohol, restricting trading hours and reducing the density of outlets “can have positive outcomes in reducing the overall consumption levels of alcohol”.

Aside from making alcohol more expensive and difficult to get, there are signs that younger people are less inclined to drink to the same extent as older generations.

In the United States, a survey of 67,000 youths and adults conducted by the Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that just 9.6 per cent of adolescents aged between 12 and 17 years reported drinking alcohol in 2015, down from 17.6 per cent in 2002.

The question is whether others drugs are being used as a substitute for alcohol.

In the US, there has been a slight drop in heroin use, but prescription drug use and abuse is high. It is estimated that about 19 million Americans aged 12 years or older misused prescription drugs, mainly painkillers, in the previous year.

In Australia, about 3.3 per cent of those 14 years or older have used analgesics for non-medical purposes in the previous 12 months, 10 per cent have used cannabis, 2.1 per cent have used cocaine and methamphetamine, 2.5 per cent have used ecstasy, 1.3 per cent have used hallucinogens and 0.1 per cent have used heroin.

But even with the decline in its consumption, alcohol remains a major health problem. It was the leading cause of disease burden for the under 45s in 2011, and alcohol use disorders accounted for 1.5 per cent of the total burden of disease that year.

Adrian Rollins

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