Almost half of young Australian adults engage in binge-drinking on at least a monthly basis, a new report shows – but across the board rates of alcohol consumption are falling.
Findings from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on trends in alcohol availability, use and treatment show that 18- to 24-year-olds are most likely to report risky drinking behaviour.
The report says 47% reported drinking more than four standard drinks on a single occasion on at least a monthly basis, 33% consumed 11 or more standard drinks on a single occasion at least yearly, and 18% at least monthly.
But older Australians were more likely to have more than an average of two standard drinks a day, with 23% of respondents aged from 40 to 49 reporting what was defined as a “lifetime” risk.
Similarly, nearly half (49%) of respondents receiving treatment were aged in their forties. Overall, treatment for alcohol had increased by 20% from a decade ago, with patients in 2014-15 most likely to be males aged over 40 and living in major cities.
Researchers said it was possible that problems related to drinking did not develop until later in life or that people simply did not seek treatment for them until then.
The report, released on Friday, assessed trends in alcohol availability, use and treatment.
Tim Beard, a spokesman for the AIHW, said binge-drinking – particularly among younger Australians and those living in rural or very remote areas – was at odds with the downward trend of consumption rates overall.
He said drinking alcohol in significant quantities became less socially acceptable as people aged, and those who reported receiving treatment was “an ageing cohort”, seeking help for “habits they formed sometimes 20, 30 years ago”.
In 2013, just over 15 million Australians, about 78% of the population, had consumed alcohol in the past year – but the apparent consumption of alcohol as determined through sales and taxation data has decreased nationally from 2003-04 to 2013-14.
The proportion of people abstaining – who had never consumed a full serving of alcohol – had risen from 17% in 2004 to 22% in 2013; the rate of ex-drinkers had also increased.
Alcohol consumption per person had also fallen to 9.7 litres in 2013-14 from 10.8l in 2008-9.
The increasing price of alcohol, restrictions on trading hours, and fewer outlets were understood to be effective in reducing harms.
But despite some emerging positive patterns, risky drinking and alcohol dependence continued to be significant issues in Australia, particularly among some groups. Remote and very remote areas were more likely to engage in risky drinking than people living in major cities, said Beard.
The report found 15% of people who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual reported drinking at very high levels each month, compared to 7% of people who identified as heterosexual.
Indigenous Australians were more likely than non-Indigenous Australians to report risky drinking on single occasions, and more than three times as likely to drink at very high levels every week – though the gap was decreasing over time.
Alcohol was the leading cause of burden of disease for Australians under the age of 45 in 2011; alcohol-use disorders were responsible for 1.5% of the total burden of disease.
Research published by the University of Adelaide last week highlighted the difficulties experienced by Australians to cut back on their alcohol intake or quit altogether.
Ashlea Bartram, a PhD researcher at the university’s School of Public Health, found that people routinely made excuses to remove themselves from situations where others were drinking, or provided accepted excuses for abstaining such as being unwell or needing to drive.
She said it was “quite clear there is a stigma attached” to people attempting to change their drinking habits. “It’s as though some kind of social code has been violated.”
People tended to make excuses not to attend social gatherings, and instead found “new ways to spend time with their peers that weren’t focused on alcohol,” Bartram said.