Thursday, February 2, 2012

Australia Lags World's Best Practice in Alcohol Consumption

Australians like to think of themselves as world class drinkers. Talking about getting drunk on the weekend must dominate a good percentage of workplace conversations on Monday morning (and perhaps for other mornings of the week).

I always remember my manager at the drive-in bottle-o I worked in from the time I was 18 rolling his eyes at one customer's story about how much he'd drunk the night before, before turning to me and saying "anyone would think it was hard work getting drunk, the way that guy goes on about it". Quite. Mind you he was a big drinker himself, he just didn't think it was worth going on about, probably because it was such a regular occurrence.

But I digress. It seems we are not quite as good as those former Eastern European and Soviet Communist countries. Perhaps it's all those steroids Communist bloc athletes took in the 1970s and 1980s that has given them the advantage.

The Economist has just put out a neat little graphic based on a report from the World Health Organisation, which says that we (i.e. the world) apparently drank 6.1 litres of pure alcohol per person over 15 in 2005. (That's not 6.1 litres of drinks with alcohol in them, but 6.1 litres of "pure" alcohol - the stuff you can run cars on!).

A little maths can put this in perspective. If an average stubby of beer contains 375ml and is roughly 4.5% alcohol then each beer contains 16.8 ml of alcohol or 0.0168 litres. If we then divide 6.1 by that figure we get an average global consumption of alcohol that is equivalent to 363 stubbies of beer per person per year. Using the same logic, that's 56 bottles of wine (14.5% alcohol, 750ml bottles). But this is for all adults (over 15). Given that abstaining rates are around 15%, then those who actually do drink, down a case load more.

Moldovans score the gold medal, drinking 18.2 litres each. But a closer look at the figures for Moldovans reveals that Moldovan men who do imbibe, drink over 32 litres of pure alcohol per year - close to 2000 stubbies/300 bottles of wine).

The Czechs get the silver medal with about 16 litres each.

More than half of Moldovan drinking is moonshine, which you'll know, if you've ever drunken some, ain't particularly good for your health. Illegal alcohol production supposedly accounts for almost 30% of the world alcohol consumption.

At said pub I worked at in Adelaide ("The Shandon", now "the Links" I think), it seemed to be the southern Europeans most keen to make their own alcohol. I remember having a tiny little swig of some concoction of grappa, which made me gasp for air and immediately a little unsteady on my feet, a bit like a bucket bong (at least that's what I've been told by people who've had such things).

The WHO conveniently provide country fact sheets, which are quite revealing, even if they are from 2005. Data on these things obviously takes time to collate. Perhaps it's all that drinking going on.

(For a list of country fact sheets see here)

Generally Australians are fairly happy with their consumption because it is "stable". Like in the soccer, we kick ass in the Western Pacific, beating our neighbours by almost 4 litres of pure alcohol a year per person.

But when we get rid of the "abstainers", we do even better (worse?), with males drinking 16.26 litres of pure alcohol a year (that's almost 1000 stubbies or 150 bottles of wine or some drunken combination of the two, with a few bottles of spirits thrown in).

The Australian Bureau of Statistics also collates statistics on alcohol consumption, which it calls "Apparent Consumption of Alcohol, Australia". The latest figures are from 2009-10 and reveal that:
There were 184.0 million litres of pure alcohol available for consumption from alcoholic beverages in Australia in 2009–10. This was 0.7% more than the amount available for consumption in 2008–09 (182.7 million litres).
The increase was comprised of increases from wine (up 4.3%) and spirits (up 0.7%), and decreases from beer (down 1.7%) and Ready to Drink (pre-mixed) beverages (down 1.9%).
Of all pure alcohol available for consumption in 2009–10, beer contributed 43.3%, wine 37.2%, spirits 12.5% and RTDs 7.0%.
On a per capita basis, there were 10.3 litres of pure alcohol available for consumption per person in 2009–10, which is less than in 2008–09. As a standard drink consists of 12.5 mls of pure alcohol, this is equivalent to an average of 2.2 standard drinks per day per person aged 15 years and over.
Over the past 5 years, beer is down and wine is up.

Over the longer-term this trend is even more marked.

Those guys swilling beers at 6pm in the 1960s would be deeply disappointed by all these new fangled blokes (like myself) who've almost fully switched to wine. I used to drink beer when it was really hot, now I just drink cold pinots!

My old man recalls him and his mates buying five drinks each, just before six so that they could keep drinking a little longer beyond the legislated 6pm pub closing time. The six o'clock swill indeed.

Legislation does make a difference to consumption, but not always in the ways intended. Wine is favoured in taxation terms, partly as a spur to the wine industry, but this means a higher consumption of cheap wine. And although there is some evidence that the government's increased taxation on ready-to-drink alcopops reduced young adults from 'binge' drinking, others argue that it has led to greater drinking of spirits, which are then post-mixed, rather than pre-mixed. Anecdotally, this does seem to be the case, at least amongst the small sample of young adults I know.

But while many of us like a drink, we often do tend to minimise its harmful effects.

According to "The WHO":
The harmful use of alcohol results in 2.5 million deaths each year.

320,000 young people between the age of 15 and 29 die from alcohol-related causes, resulting in 9% of all deaths in that age group.

Alcohol is the world’s third largest risk factor for disease burden; it is the leading risk factor in the Western Pacific and the Americas and the second largest in Europe.

Alcohol is associated with many serious social and developmental issues, including violence, child neglect and abuse, and absenteeism in the workplace.
But even more importantly as The WHO notes:
It also causes harm far beyond the physical and psychological health of the drinker. It harms the well-being and health of people around the drinker. An intoxicated person can harm others or put them at risk of traffic accidents or violent behaviour, or negatively affect co-workers, relatives, friends or strangers. Thus, the impact of the harmful use of alcohol reaches deep into society.
Harmful drinking is a major determinant for neuropsychiatric disorders, such as alcohol use disorders and epilepsy and other noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cirrhosis of the liver and various cancers. The harmful use of alcohol is also associated with several infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). This is because alcohol consumption weakens the immune system and has a negative effect on patients’ adherence to antiretroviral treatment.
A significant proportion of the disease burden attributable to harmful drinking arises from unintentional and intentional injuries, including those due to road traffic accidents, violence, and suicides. Fatal injuries attributable to alcohol consumption tend to occur in relatively younger age groups.
I often wonder, given these obvious pathologies, why alcohol is legal and marijuana is illegal. Alcohol seems to be a much bigger problem and many of the problems associated with marijuana are caused more by its illegality, rather than its consumption.

For those interested in an analysis of the possible benefits of legalising marijuana, see an article by Professor Jan van Ours "The Long and Winding Road to Marijuana Legalisation" at Vox.

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