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Regular consumption of alcohol at high levels increases the risk of alcohol-related harm. High intakes can contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as liver disease, some cancers, oral health problems and cardiovascular disease. Alcohol consumption can also play a part in excess energy intake, contributing to excess body weight. Reducing alcohol consumption reduces the risk of developing these conditions and other health problems [1].

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) advises that the potential cardiovascular benefit of alcohol may be achieved by drinking no more than 2 standard drinks per day, but these same benefits can also be gained by other means, such as exercise or modifying diet [1].

Box 1: How is risk of alcohol-related harm measured?

Alcohol consumption refers to the consumption of drinks containing ethanol, commonly referred to as alcohol. The quantity, frequency or regularity with which alcohol is drunk provides a measure of the level of alcohol consumption.

NHMRC guidelines for alcohol consumption provide advice on reducing the risks to health from drinking alcohol. For healthy men and women, drinking no more than 2 standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury. Drinking no more than 4 standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion.

Alcohol-related risk is defined as follows:

  • lifetime risk for alcohol consumption of more than 2 standard drinks per day
  • single occasion risk for alcohol consumption of more than 4 standard drinks at a single occasion.

Note that one standard drink contains 10g of alcohol (12.5 mL of pure alcohol) [1].

In the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2011–12 Australian Health Survey (AHS), alcohol risk was derived from an individual's average daily consumption over the 3 most recent days they had consumed alcohol in the week before the interview [2]. Results presented here relate to lifetime risk of alcohol-related harm or injury as defined above.

Who exceeds the lifetime alcohol risk guidelines?

Based on self-reported data from the 2011–12 AHS, 1 in 5 people aged 18 and over (20%) consume more than 2 standard drinks per day on average, exceeding the lifetime alcohol risk guidelines. Overall, men are 3 times as likely to be at lifetime risk of harm due to alcohol as women (29% and 10% respectively).

Around 30% of men aged between 18 and 64 exceed the lifetime alcohol risk guidelines (Figure 1). Among older men the proportion falls sharply, with 18% of those aged 75 and over exceeding recommended levels. For men, the highest level (34%) is for those aged 55–64.

For women there is a similar trend but at lower levels of intake, with 13% of women aged 55–64 exceeding the lifetime alcohol risk guidelines, falling to 7% of women aged 75 and over.

Figure 1: Exceedance of lifetime alcohol risk guidelines in persons aged 18 and over, by sex, 2011–12

Vertical bar chart showing for (men; women); age group (18-24 to 75plus years) on the x axis; per cent (0 to 40) on the y axis.

Source: ABS 2012. Australian Health Survey: First Results, 2011–12. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics (see source data).

Trends in alcohol consumption

The proportion of adults at lifetime risk of harm due to excessive alcohol consumption increased between 2001 and 2004–05 but has remained largely unchanged since then (age-standardised; Figure 2). Between 2001 and 2004–05, the proportion exceeding alcohol consumption guidelines increased from 29% to 32% for men and from 8.5% to 12% for women. From 2004–05 to 2011–12, the proportion declined slightly in men (from 32% to 29%) but has remained similar for women.

Figure 2: Exceedance of lifetime alcohol risk guidelines in persons aged 18 and over, by sex, 2001 to 2011–12

Stacked line chart showing for (men; women); year (2001 to 2011-12) on the x axis; per cent (0 to 35) on the y axis.

Note: Age-standardised to the 2001 Australian population.

Sources: AIHW analysis of ABS 'Microdata: Australian Health Survey, National Health Survey, 2011–12; ABS 1989–90, 2001, 2004–15, 2007–08 NHS CURFSs (see source data).

Inequalities

The proportion of adults at lifetime risk of harm due to alcohol consumption differs across geographic areas and socioeconomic groups (Figure 3). Adults in Outer regional and remote areas are 1.3 times as likely to exceed alcohol consumption guidelines as those in Major cities (24% compared to 19% respectively).

Adults living in the least disadvantaged areas are 1.4 times as likely to exceed alcohol consumption guidelines as those living in the most disadvantaged areas (22% compared with 16%).

Figure 3: Exceedance of lifetime alcohol risk guidelines in persons aged 18 and over, by sex, by selected population characteristics, 2011–12

Horizontal bar chart showing for (men; women); per cent (0 to 40) on the x axis;  population subgroup on the y axis.

Note: Q1-Q5 refers to area-based quintiles classified according to Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas 2011 (SEIFA 2011), specifically the Index of Relative Socio-Economic Disadvantage (IRSD).

Source: AIHW analysis of ABS 'Microdata: Australian Health Survey, National Health Survey, 2011–12' (see source data).

International comparisons

International comparisons of alcohol consumption are gauged by annual sales and are converted to pure alcohol. In 2013 (or the nearest year), alcohol consumption averaged 9.9 litres (L) per person aged 15 and over in Australia. Consumption was 8.8 L per capita in the United States, 8.0 L in Canada and 9.7 L in the United Kingdom. Alcohol consumption in Australia was higher than the average across 34 OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), which was 8.8 L per person. Turkey had the lowest average (1.4 L per capita) and Austria the highest (12.2 L per capita) [3].

Although average adult alcohol consumption per capita gives useful comparisons, it does not identify the number of persons at risk from harmful drinking patterns.


Source data

References

  1. NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) 2009. Australian Guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council.
  2. ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics). Australian Health Survey: users' guide, 2011–13. ABS cat. no. 4363.0.55.001. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
  3. OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) 2015. Health at a glance 2015: OECD indicators. Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Publishing.

Further information

Further details on alcohol consumption are available from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey. Conducted every three years, the survey provides information on alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use in Australia, as well as community attitudes to drug use .