Drink till you drop - health time bomb

Jill Stark
May 5, 2007

AUSTRALIA'S binge-drinking culture is a time bomb that threatens to overload the public health system within decades, experts have warned.

A growth in dangerous drinking across all age groups, class boundaries and cultural lines has prompted calls for urgent alcohol reform.

Some of the country's top researchers predict Australia will see a significant rise in chronic diseases such as liver cirrhosis, cancers and brain disorders in the next 20 years.

Doctors say they are seeing a growing trend of drinkers as young as 18 suffering tremors, sweats and even seizures - withdrawal symptoms normally seen after a decade of alcohol abuse. Many are drinking a bottle of spirits a day, with experts predicting a rise in brain damage cases.

Those in the field have accused governments of a systematic failure to tackle the crisis, citing generous political donations from the alcohol industry and huge tax revenues as driving factors behind the complacency.

The claims come as the World Health Organisation prepares to debate next week a resolution to reduce global alcohol harm - the fifth leading risk factor for premature death and disability. It will be the first time in 20 years such a step has been taken.

"We have got to change the way our culture dances with alcohol or future generations will suffer the consequences," said Professor Ian Webster, a drug and alcohol specialist and chairman of the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation.

"At the moment it's a bit like David fighting Goliath. Government revenue is directly related to the economy of the alcohol industry, and it has powerful political connections with both sides of politics. That makes cultural change very difficult."

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report of GP visits in 1999 found that 40 per cent of men 18 to 24 had at-risk levels of alcohol consumption. By last year the figure had increased to 49 per cent.

Rates for women rose from 33 to 36 per cent. Rates for 25 to 44-year-old men grew from 35 to 41 per cent and 22 to 25 per cent in women.

Professor John Toumbourou, of the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, said alcohol could be dangerous for young brains.

"As this generation moves through young adulthood into adulthood we'll see an increase in all categories of illness related to alcohol and it's an extensive list - liver failure, a variety of cancers, brain damage and higher deaths down the line. To me that's a ticking time bomb."

Older generations are also a growing concern with risky drinking among 65 to 74-year-old women rising from 15 per cent in 1999 to more than 17 per cent in 2006 and from 12 to 14 per cent in over 75s.

"Even if nothing changes we're going to have a substantial increase over the next 20 years of older people who are drinking at levels that cause harm to themselves and potentially to others," said Steve Allsop, director of the National Drug Research Institute.

"And it may be that things get worse rather than better because if the baby boomers take their drinking habits into older age that's going to be a real problem and will become a huge public health burden."