Australia has a reputation as a ‘heavy drinking nation’, but a new study reveals alcohol consumption is on the decline – particularly among teenagers.
We spoke with Dr Michael Livingston, leading Australian alcohol policy researcher at La Trobe’s Centre for Alcohol Policy Research and main author of the study Understanding trends in Australian alcohol consumption and asked him why the trend was changing.
Were you surprised by these results when you found out that people between 14 – 17 were drinking less?
Not entirely. This research stems from earlier work we’d done where we looked at rates of teenagers who had reported not drinking at all and we found there’s been a pretty clear decline since around 2000. This study extended that by looking at both whether people drink or don’t drink and, if they do, how much they drink.
We found that even the teenagers who are choosing to drink are drinking less than the same age group ten years ago. So, what we’ve seen is a broad shift both in the choice not to drink and, once you do drink, how much you choose to drink.
What do you think are some of the contributing factors to this decline?
We have a whole pile of theories. One reason this trend is really interesting is that it’s a pattern observed in other countries too, like Sweden, Finland, Norway, the UK and Germany. It’s a broad shift, which immediately means the reasons are unlikely to be something particularly relevant to the local context – like a particular policy. So, then you’re forced to look at broader changes in society or in attitudes and what might be driving them globally.
One factor might be a reaction to a heavy drinking cohort that came before. We saw peaks in consumption in many countries in the early 2000, with lots of [resulting] problems and then reactions against that both from policy and the media. Maybe we’re seeing a reversal of a long trend. There is a theory that these things happen in waves and we could be in the down slope of one that will eventually bottom and out and start climbing again.
You’ve also mentioned it could be linked with the rise of social media.
Alcohol, especially for teenagers, is very social. It’s very much a part of meeting people and building up courage for certain things and social interactions. This cohort we’re talking about have come through their teen years at a time when social practices for young people have been transformed by the rise of online ways of interacting.
This shift in drinking is just affecting young people and started at about the same time as the rise of things like Facebook. It’s intriguing, and is something we’re definitely trying to investigate further.
I’ve certainly noticed more articles in popular media along the lines of ‘what it’s like being a non-drinker…’ or about the rise of alcohol-free events like ‘juice crawls’ and ‘sober day raves’. Do you think initiatives like Dry July or, say, the lock-out laws in Sydney have played a role at all in this trend?
To me, the lock-out laws fit with other policies that have been implemented in the past decade: restrictions making it illegal for adults to supply alcohol to adolescents, the increase in the alcopops tax and so on. I think they’re helpful, and might drive harms down more quickly than they’d otherwise be declining, but they’re as much reflecting the fact that our attitudes are shifting as they driving the shifts in the population.
There’s good data that shows Australians, in general, are much more worried about alcohol and have much more support for restrictive polices than they used to. I think we’re seeing a social shift and the policies are coming along with that.
If young people continue these modest drinking habits, what could be some of the long-term outcomes?
In some indicators we are seeing a steady reduction in things like visitation to emergency departments, late night violence and in all kinds of other negative outcomes in the short term. Hopefully in the longer term, some chronic disease outcomes, like heart and liver disease, and some cancers should start to fall as well.
Encouragingly we are seeing this current cohort maintain lighter drinking as they age. Those now in the young adult group, 18-24 year olds, are drinking about 20 per cent less than that age-group ten years ago.
There’s a lot of evidence that shows even if this group at 25 start drinking at the same level as previous generations, we should still see benefits because the earlier you start drinking – and drinking heavily – the more likely you are to develop all kinds of problems later on. So even if the change doesn’t stick, we might still see some good outcomes.
At the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, is the desired outcome drinking in moderation or abstinence?
The main thing we’re about is reducing harm from drinking. We want to try and find policies and practices that will lead to less people in hospital or less people dying prematurely. I don’t think that requires abstinence. It requires a mix of less drinking and harm reduction, and safer drinking. Even if it’s the same amount of drinking, we want to find ways to make contexts or situations safer.
You studied Statistics and Criminology as an undergrad. How did you get into alcohol policy research?
I kind of fell into it. I did my undergrad in Brisbane and worked up there in criminology. My partner got a post-doctorate in Melbourne so [I looked to move to Melbourne too]. Someone I knew suggested I get in touch with Professor Robin Room, who started the centre. I came down, got a job, luckily, with him and then found it so interesting that he quickly talked me into a PhD and it’s gone from there.
A lot of us have sort of fallen into it from various other disciplines. We’ve got epidemiologists, sociologists, criminologists, psychologists – every kind of ‘ologist’ – doing a mix of quantitative and qualitative research across anything that’s relevant to alcohol policies. It’s pretty broad. Within some decent boundaries, we are able to follow our interests and explore the whole gamut of ‘does this play into making good choices around alcohol policy?’ It’s quite fun.
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