Drinking, smoking, body weight and inactivity data unravelled

Statistics about 'lifestyle' health risk factors-alcohol and tobacco consumption, physical inactivity, and overweight and obesity-can reveal a lot about the state of a nation's health and why some people or groups of people have better or worse health than others.

But data currently available in Australia on these risk factors can be conflicting or inconsistent between data collections, according to a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

The report, Indicators of Health Risk Factors: the AIHW View, will be launched in Noosa today at the Third International Scientific Meeting on Global Issues in Surveillance of Health Behaviours in Populations.

Head of the AIHW's Population Health Unit, Dr Paul Jelfs, said that the differences occurred because various data collection agencies use different survey concepts and methodologies.

'For example, the Hunter Valley Research Foundation's 2000 Active Australia survey reports that 15% of adults are sedentary and the proportion has been rising in the last few years. The 2001 Australian Bureau of Statistics National Health Survey (NHS) reports the proportion of sedentary adults as 31%, with the figures coming down in the past few years.'

'The two surveys defined "sedentary" very differently, and the concept of "exercise" was also quite different between the two surveys. Active Australia included participation in mostly leisure-time physical activities and included walking for transport. The NHS looked at structured exercise only and specifically excluded walking for transport.'

'What we have tried to do in this report is unravel differences such as these and recommend a way forward that would see more consistent information collected by all agencies.'

The report also alerts data collection agencies and data users about general shortcomings in current data.

'For example, in the area of overweight and obesity we have shown that figures based on self-reported height and weight are underestimates because people consistently overestimate their height and underestimate their weight.

'In surveys where height and weight are physically measured we also know that many people who feel they might be overweight or obese will not elect to participate in the survey, which will also bias the results.'

Among the report's recommendations is that people younger than 18 years be included in interviewing and reporting on drinking, something currently not done.

'The AIHW's National Drug Strategy Household survey shows that at least half all lifetime drinkers began drinking by the age of 16, and that the prevalence of drinking in the 14-17 years age group was 66.3%', Dr Jelfs said.

'What we really need now is input from data users, collection agencies, the community, and others who analyse risk factor data, so we can work towards a unified approach in the collection of this kind of information.'

17 October 2003


Further information: Dr Paul Jelfs, AIHW, tel. 0407 283 109
Media copies of the report: Publications Officer, AIHW, tel. 02 6244 1032