Nowhere are changing trends in alcohol consumption more evident than Australia, where the stereotype of a larrikin grasping a tinny is getting fainter as fewer people drink, and those who do become more discerning.
The country’s love affair with alcohol is increasingly becoming a myth, though it is fair to say that the image of the beer-guzzling Australian did ring true once. It just won’t ever return, as more young people choose not to drink alcohol.
Lowest drinking level for half a century
Though Australians drank the equivalent of 10 litres of pure alcohol for every person aged 15 or over in 2017—more than Americans and Japanese—according to the latest data available from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, this represents the lowest level for half a century.
Compare this figure to the 75 litres of beer, five litres of spirits, and two litres of wine they consumed on average in 1913, according to liquor historian Brett Stubbs, and it’s clear how much the country has changed, drinking-wise, in a century.
In a little less than 50 years, the number of stubbies each Australian drinks on average has more than halved, from 500 per person in 1974 to 224 in 2017.
Half of all the alcohol consumed in Australia is now downed by the heaviest drinking 10% of the population, while nine out of 10 Australians consider themselves responsible drinkers.
Yet researchers believe a quarter of them are not responsible, and more than two-thirds are unaware of what constitutes risky drinking, with many taking it well beyond recommended levels.
Compared to beer, which accounted for 60% of alcohol consumption before the First World War, cheap alcohol is now the favourite of Australia’s one-in-10 heaviest drinkers, who are most likely to be middle-aged men living in rural and regional areas, according to study by La Trobe University’s Centre for Alcohol Policy and Research.
“We found that the heaviest drinking 10% of Australians drink 54.4% of all alcohol consumed in Australia,” said the centre’s Michael Livingston.
“This group is drinking well above the government’s low-risk drinking guidelines, which not only jeopardises their health, but has negative flow-on effects for families and communities.”
Cheap alcohol is the common denominator among Australia’s heaviest drinkers, while other anticipated strands were not borne out by the research.
“Surprisingly, we found drinking patterns didn’t correlate strongly with other socio-demographic factors, such as employment status and neighbourhood disadvantage,” Dr Livingston said.
But one-third of adults now say they have reduced how often or how much they drink in the past year. A further 29% said they had reduced the frequency of their drinking and 6% said they had kicked it for good.
Those aged between 24 and 29 were the most likely to have reduced their alcohol intake, citing work, education and family as motivators for the change, according to La Trobe.
"People believe in moderation, they are concerned about violence, and they want to avoid drunkenness, or genuinely dislike how getting drunk makes them feel,” said Amy Pennay, another researcher at the centre, adding that a cultural shift in drinking was underway.
This shift has gone as far as bringing about Australia’s first non-alcoholic craft beer, launched by Aboriginal-owned Sobah in 2017. The Queensland brews are infused with native Australian ingredients including lemon aspen and finger lime within a preservative and chemical free non-alcoholic craft beer, which retails at up to A$18 (US$12.65) per can. It’s hard to imagine a more engaging backstory with which to tap into the hip, young teetotal market.
Yet confusion over the risks of alcohol is widespread, and a new survey reveals a binge culture among those who drink too much. It found nine out of 10 Australians consider themselves "responsible drinkers", yet a quarter drink to get drunk at least once a month.
Released this month, the latest in a series of annual polls by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education also learnt more than two-thirds of Australians are unaware what constitutes risky drinking, and many are drinking well beyond recommended levels. Only 31% of respondents could correctly identify the number of standard drinks a person could consume to minimise long-term harm.
At 87%, an overwhelming majority of Australian drinkers consider themselves responsible drinkers, yet a high percentage of those drinkers consume alcohol to get drunk.
“The poll clearly demonstrates how ambiguous and subjective the concept of ‘responsible drinking’ actually is, when 68% of drinkers who consume 11 or more standard drinks on a typical occasion, consider themselves responsible drinkers,” said the foundation’s chief executive, Michael Thorn.
Yet official statistics suggest that there has been an improvement in drinking habits over the last decade. They say 84% of Australians now enjoy their alcoholic beverages responsibly and in moderation, while a similar percentage of teenagers are abstaining altogether. At the same time, younger people are delaying their first drink longer and drinking less.
Alcohol Beverages Australia, the industry group, attributes much of these improvements to the work the industry has done to regulate itself in how it markets alcohol.
"For 20 years leading Australian producers have been signatories to the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code, which has evolved quickly to new the marketing and media landscape. All producers in Australia should be accountable to the Code, which ensures responsibility in both the content and placement of alcohol advertisements,” ABA said in a statement.
It’s clear there is some way to go before Australia can say it has raised awareness of the dangers of drinking too much across the whole population, but the figures suggest it is making progress. There are a few larrikins left still to convert.