Alcohol and health in Australia

Alcohol is responsible for a considerable burden of death, disease and injury in Australia. Alcohol-related harm to health is not limited to drinkers but also affects families, bystanders and the broader community.

Sources and reference

The material on this page apart from the research funding summary is taken from the chapter 'Background' in the guidelines and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2013 report on the National Drug Strategy Household Survey.

Current trends of Australian alcohol use

Most Australians have tried alcohol at some time in their lives. People use alcohol for a wide range of reasons and in different social and cultural contexts. They may drink for sociability, cultural participation, religious observance or as a result of peer influence. They may also drink for pleasure, relaxation, mood alteration, enhanced creativity, intoxication, addiction, boredom, habit, to overcome inhibitions, to escape or forget or to ‘drown sorrows’.

Most Australians who drink alcohol do so at levels that have few adverse effects. However, any level of drinking increases the risk of ill-health and injury.

The 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey indicated the following trends in alcohol use from 2010:

  • Daily drinking declined significantly between 2010 and 2013 (from 7.2% to 6.5%) and was at the lowest level seen since 1991. Rates fell for both males and females.
  • Between 2010 and 2013, there was a significant increase in the proportion of people who had never consumed a full serve of alcohol (from 12.1% to 13.8%).
  • Fewer people aged 12–17 are drinking alcohol and the proportion abstaining from alcohol increased significantly between 2010 and 2013 (from 64% to 72%).
  • Younger people are continuing to delay starting drinking— in 2013, the age at which 14–24-year-olds first tried alcohol has increased since 1998 from 14.4 to 15.7 years.

For more information on Australian alcohol use and trends, refer to the following publications: AIHW: Australia’s Health 2014, AIHW: Cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic kidney disease Australian facts (2015), and the Australian Bureau of Statistics: Australian Health Survey (2013).

Excessive alcohol consumption as a risk factor

Excessive alcohol consumption is a cause of a wide range of health and other harms including being the major cause of road and other accidents, domestic and public violence, crime, liver disease and brain damage, and contributes to family breakdown and broader social dysfunction.

Lifetime risky drinkers are defined as people who consume more than 2 standard drinks per day (on average over a 12 month period). Single occasion risky drinkers are defined as people consuming 5 or more standard drinks on a single drinking occasion.

For healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion.

For healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion.

Compared to 2010, in 2013:

  • Fewer people in Australia drank alcohol in quantities that exceeded the lifetime risk and single occasion risk guidelines,
  • People aged 14 or older who exceeded the lifetime risk guidelines declined from 20% to 18.2%, and
  • The proportion of those who exceeded the single occasion risk guidelines at least once a month also declined significantly from 29% to 26%.

Figure 1: People aged 14 years or older, drinking alcohol riskily or abstaining, 2001–2013 (per cent)

  • Males were twice as likely as females to exceed the lifetime risk guidelines (26% and 10%, respectively) and men in their 40s and late 20s were most likely to drink at risky levels (32%), while for women it was young adults aged 18–24 (14.6%).
  • People aged 18–39 were less likely to drink alcohol in risky quantities in 2013 compared to 2001, but between 2001 and 2013, there was little change in the risky consumption of alcohol among people aged 40 or older with a similar proportion exceeding both the lifetime risk and single occasion risk guidelines.
  • Although 1 in 6 (15.6%) people in Australia had consumed 11 or more standard drinks on a single drinking occasion in the past 12 months, this was significantly lower than in 2010 (16.8%).

Effects of alcohol on the body

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. The most obvious and immediate effects of alcohol are on the brain, beginning with feelings of relaxation, wellbeing and loss of inhibitions. However, as the intake of alcohol increases, these effects are counterbalanced by less pleasant effects, such as drowsiness, loss of balance, nausea and vomiting. Higher alcohol intakes can lead to life-threatening events such as unconsciousness and, eventually, inhibition of normal breathing. This may be fatal, particularly as the person may vomit and can suffocate if the vomit is inhaled.

Consumption of alcohol has both immediate and cumulative effects. Alcohol-related harm in individuals arises not only from the quantity of alcohol consumed but also from a complex interaction between their sex, body size and composition, age, experience of drinking, genetics, nutrition, individual metabolism, and social factors.

Cumulative effects

Alcohol consumption has been associated with a range of diseases that may cause death and adverse effects that reduce quality of life. Among these are:

  • Cardiovascular disease — high blood pressure, arrhythmias, shortness of breath, some types of cardiac failure, haemorrhagic stroke and other circulatory problems.
  • Cancers — alcohol is carcinogenic to humans, being causally related to cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colorectum and female breast.
  • Diabetes — the relationship between alcohol consumption, insulin sensitivity, and type 2 diabetes mellitus is not clear. However, alcohol affects the management of diabetes in a number of ways.
  • Nutrition-related conditions — alcohol consumption is linked to malnutrition, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, folate deficiency, Vitamin A depletion and pellagra.
  • Overweight and obesity — alcohol adds kilojoules to the normal diet and may increase energy intake and fat storage further by increasing appetite and displacing fat and carbohydrate oxidation.
  • Risks to unborn babies — alcohol enters the bloodstream of the fetus when the mother drinks and can cause a range of birth defects and growth and developmental problems, comprising Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), which may persist into adulthood. Alcohol also enters the breast milk.
  • Liver diseases — alcohol consumption is the most common cause of cirrhosis of the liver, and drinking alcohol over many years can cause cirrhosis in the absence of other causes.
  • Mental health conditions — there is growing evidence that alcohol increases the risk of highly prevalent mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety in some people, and may affect the efficacy of antidepressant medication.
  • Tolerance — the immediate effects of alcohol on the brain are often less apparent in people who drink regularly, as they acquire a degree of tolerance. Despite this tolerance, the long-term effects remain damaging, particularly as the drinkers who have greater tolerance for alcohol are likely to be those who experience higher blood alcohol levels more frequently.
  • Dependence — alcohol is an addictive drug and regular use can result in alcohol dependence.
  • Long-term cognitive impairment — drinkers who consume alcohol at harmful levels exhibit negative structural and metabolic brain changes, and have an increased risk of dementia.
  • Self-harm — harmful drinking is a major risk factor for suicide and suicidal behaviour in both males and females across the lifespan.

NHMRC funding for alcohol research

Apart from the development of the Guidelines, NHMRC has invested over $85 million into research related to alcohol and alcoholism from 2000 to 2015.

Year Funding ($m)
2000 0.9
2001 1.27
2002 1.38
2003 3.58
2004 3.89
2005 4.28
2006 4.35
2007 4.59
2008 3.89
2009 4.82
2010 7.36
2011 8.75
2012 7.6
2013 9.2
2014 10.29
2015 11.49
TOTAL 87.64