As we edge closer to another hot summer, and the lure of beer gardens and pool parties, it is timely to remind ourselves that levels of alcohol consumption – and the associated harms – peak in the warmer months. This is particularly true during end-of-year festivities such as Schoolies, the last working day before Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Australia is observing declining rates of per capita alcohol consumption, as are many other high-income countries – likely due to a growing awareness of the unhealthy effects of alcohol on our bodies, both in relation to short term (e.g. injury) and long term (e.g. cancer) harms.
This is particularly the case for young people, who are shunning alcohol at rates never seen before in Australia. Many are citing health concerns, but also financial and social reasons.
On the other hand, older Australians, particularly Generation Xers and Baby Boomers, are continuing to drink at levels that put them at risk of acute and lifetime harm.
So, what are the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, and how much is too much?
Alcohol causes death and injury, particularly among young people. The large and increasing burden of alcohol-attributable harm has significant implications not just for the injured person, but for police, emergency department clinicians and paramedics.
Alcohol is also causally linked to more than 200 disease conditions among older adults, including cancer and heart disease.
Taking this into account, robust guidelines for drinking in Australia suggest drinking no more than four drinks on a single occasion to minimise risk of injury from drinking.
They also suggest no more than two drinks per day to minimise the long-term health risks of alcohol to the body. It is recommended to have at least two alcohol-free days per week. Sustained periods of not drinking have also shown to result in benefits to the mind and body. This is why we are seeing increased uptake of programs such as Dry January or Feb Fast, or short-term abstinence programs such as Hello Sunday Morning, which can be undertaken at any time.
We’ve seen public health gains through reduced collective alcohol consumption – it’s time for us to now focus on reducing harms. In doing so, first responders can focus on more important concerns, and the rest of us can enjoy a safe and happy summer.
Dr Amy Pennay is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, La Trobe University.