Celebrating success

October 2019
There’s a tendency in the alcohol and drug sector, as with many areas of health and human services, to focus on the negative and the harms. It is, after all, the reason why we are in this sector. Hence, it’s perfectly understandable that some of the very positive trends that occur in relation to alcohol and drug use do not receive the full attention that they rightly deserve.

One of these major positive trends of late is the statistically significant decrease in risky drinking that’s occurring among young people in Australia. It’s a trend that is not unique to Australia - it’s also occurring in many developed countries around the world.

What we are seeing is fewer younger people starting to drink with larger numbers of abstainers (among 12-17 year olds, abstainers increased from 54% in 2004 to 82% in 2016; and from 11% to 19% among 18-24 year olds).  Young people who are starting to drink also do so at a later age than they did previously (on average, 16 years in 2016 compared to 14.8 years in 1995).  Among those that do drink, fewer 18-24 year olds are drinking at a risky level as defined by the NHMRC (42% drinking at NHMRC short term risk levels in 2016 compared to 47% in 2013).

For some time, we’ve been monitoring the continuing decline of smoking prevalence amongst young people, but it’s only relatively recently that we have identified a similar pattern in relation to alcohol use. A pattern that has largely gone unrecognised and without the celebration it warrants.

A similar pattern has also been occurring in relation to illicit drug use among young people. That is, there is a significant downward trend in the use of other drugs, with overall illicit drug use prevalence among 18-24 year olds having decreased from 37% in 2001 to 28% in 2016 (largely reflecting decreased use of cannabis and methamphetamine).

Interestingly, it’s not entirely evident why these changes are occurring. Whilst there have been multiple policy initiatives, prevention strategies, and a range of other interventions that have been applied it’s not clear which of these strategies might be the most efficacious in bringing about desirable changes in risky behaviours. Evidence suggests multi-pronged and comprehensive approaches are most effective at achieving behaviour change.  That is, the efforts being exerted on numbers of fronts are likely to be making important contributions collectively to these changes.

The drivers of change aside, it is intriguing that these very positive public health messages have not been widely disseminated. Is this yet again another example of positive media messages that are less appealing being overlooked in favour of the more tantalising, stigmatising and generally sensationalised?

While noting these important trends, this is not to say that there does not remain a concern about problematic and risky drinking by young people. The hospital and treatment services data clearly indicate that substantial harm continues to be incurred by large numbers of young people. This notwithstanding, the downward trend in the use of alcohol and particularly the risky use of alcohol, as well as some illicit drugs, is incontrovertible. It’s time to celebrate and embrace this important cultural shift. We may not fully understand why it’s happening, but we can certainly appreciate the positive impact it’s having, not just on the health and wellbeing of young people themselves but on the community overall.