By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
There’s some positive news in the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) – most notably the fact that drug, alcohol and tobacco use appears to be declining amongst our nation’s teenagers.
The NDSHS survey of 24,000 people, which was undertaken at the end of last year, suggests a healthy report card for the nation. The last survey was undertaken in 2013, so most comparisons are made over that three-year period.
Smoking rates have been in decline across Australia for some time – a fact that many attribute to the government’s relentless anti-smoking media campaigns, laws that have banned smoking in most public places, plain packaging and exorbitant taxes. Indeed in Australia, the cost of a packet of cigarettes is one of the highest in the world.
What’s interesting about the latest survey is that declining rates may have plateaued. For the first time in more than two decades, the smoking rate did not significantly decline.
However, the fact that fewer people are taking up the habit is evidenced by the finding that the rates of Australians who have never smoked continues to rise. The rate rose from 60% in 2013 to 62% in 2016. And smokers are smoking less. Smokers report that the average number of cigarettes they smoke per week has fallen from 110 to 94 cigarettes.
The proportion of the population consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in a month also fell.
The rate fell from 27% in 2013 to 25% in 2016, and Aussie teenagers lead the way in abstinence. 72% reported not drinking in 2013, which rose to 82% in 2016.
Fewer people drink in quantities that exceeded the lifetime risk guidelines too, down from 18.2% in the last survey to 17.1%. But our older population appears to be drinking more – the survey suggesting that people in their fifties are the highest consumers.
Illicit drug use
The survey found a decline in teenagers using all categories of illicit drugs.
However, people in their forties or older were using more drugs than during the previous survey.
Overall, the most common recently used drugs were cannabis (10%), misuse of pharmaceuticals (5%), cocaine (3%), and ecstasy (2%).
Recent use of methamphetamines and amphetamines has fallen, but the report found a continuing trend toward the use of ‘ice’ (rather than other forms, such as powder).
In 2016, 57% of meth/amphetamine users were mainly using ice, more than doubling over the six-year period since 2010.
“Other drugs, including ecstasy and cocaine, had a higher number of recent users than meth/amphetamines”, the survey found.
“But when looking at the form of the drug and frequency of use, we found that those who mainly used ice did so much more frequently than ecstasy and cocaine users.”
The survey also found that people’s perceptions of meth/amphetamines has changed considerably since the last survey in 2013.
For the first time since the survey began, Australians now consider meth/amphetamines to be more of a concern than any other drug (including alcohol), with 40% reporting they believe the drug has overtaken excessive drinking of alcohol as the drug of most concern to Australians (40%).
Where to next?
Many believe illicit drugs continue to represent a significant danger to our teenagers, with other data suggesting that while so-called ‘party drugs’ such as ecstasy and cocaine are only used weekly, ice users tend to use more frequently, and that ice use amongst teens is higher in regional areas.
However as some experts point out, when Australia was faced with a heroin crisis of the 1990s, the government responded by meeting the problem, not ignoring it, and increased needle syringe exchange programs state-wide, as well as opened the first drug consumption room outside Europe. These initiatives were effective at saving lives and reducing the spread of disease.
Many are calling for Australia to go a step further and decriminalise the possession of small quantities of drugs, as recommended in the Australia 21 report released earlier this year.
Overseas jurisdictions that have made this move have experienced extremely positive results. By treating drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal law problem and focusing on harm reduction, rates of drug use and the harms associated have significantly fallen.