The Real Cost of our Love Affair with Alcohol

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Drinking on the beach

Almost half of all homicides in Australia are alcohol-related, and more than a quarter of Australians report being affected by alcohol-fuelled violence.

These statistics and a wealth of research leaves little doubt that our love affair with alcohol is a particularly toxic one – both in terms of health and social costs.

Drug of choice

Alcohol is readily available, socially acceptable and the ‘drug of choice’ for many Australians.

Although it is illegal for those under 18 to purchase alcohol, it is perfectly legal for children to drink it, even in public places, provided they are “under the supervision of a responsible adult” or have “a reasonable excuse for possessing or consuming” it. The maximum penalty for breaking this law is a fine of $20.

Eighty-six percent of Australians aged 14 years and over have drunk alcohol at least once in their lives, thousands of whom are under the age of 18, and 37.3% of Australians in the same age bracket consume it at least once per week.

These figure dwarf all other drugs, both legal and illegal.

Effect on the brain

When we drink alcohol, we experience reduced functioning of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. This is the part that plays an important role in how we regulate behaviour and make decisions.

It will come as no surprise that when drunk, we tend to make poor decisions and are more likely to react emotionally to situations where we might otherwise respond with more reason and reflection.

We are also less likely to consider the possible consequences of their actions.

Link with domestic violence

The latest figures suggest that over the past decade, there has been an 85% increase in reports of alcohol-related family violence.

Alcohol is estimated to be involved in about half of all partner violence in Australia, and 73% of partner physical assaults.

Comparisons with other drugs

Alcohol is linked with violence far more than any other drug, partly because it is consumed far more often and partly due to its effect on the brain.

26% of Australians report they have been affected by alcohol-related violence compared with 3.1% affected by violence related to illegal drugs.

Hospital emergency department statistics suggest that number of presentations due to amphetamines – the class of stimulants which “ice” belongs to – pales in comparison to those involving alcohol.

Widespread use and abuse

One in five Australians drink at a level that increases their lifetime risk of alcohol-related disease or injury.

Binge drinking is also a significant problem in Australia, with one report suggesting that almost half of Australians aged over 18 years (44.7%) consumed an amount of alcohol on a single occasion in the preceding year that put them at an increased risk of acute injury.

But there’s always hope that we might find a way to reduce these numbers, and education rather than regulation and prohibition seems to be part of the solution. Another important part is a cultural shift away from seeing ‘getting pissed’ as normal and socially acceptable.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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