Australian women have overtaken their daughters when it comes to risky drinking, with more women in their 50s exceeding the lifetime risk guidelines for alcohol consumption than those aged 18 to 24 for the first time.
The most comprehensive snapshot of national vice reveals that while younger people are becoming more abstemious when it comes to alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs, their parents and grandparents are taking their habits with them into older age.
The National Drug Strategy Household Survey, released on Thursday, provides cross-sectional data on Australians’ drug use every three years and is used to inform government policy.
It was based on the responses of 24,000 people in the last half of 2016.
Young people aged 12 to 24 were more likely to abstain from tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs than any time since 2001, and those that did consume them are doing so in smaller quantities.
They were also taking up these habits at a later age, with most teenagers experiencing alcohol and cigarettes for the first time at age 16 in 2016 compared with 14 in 1998.
But those aged over 40 were more likely to have used illicit drugs in the past 12 months than they were in 2013, with the proportion rising from 14 to 16 per cent, and more people in their 50s were consuming 11 or more standard drinks on a single occasion.
Eastern Suburbs Mental Health Service clinical lead in old age psychiatry, Brian Draper, said this was largely a function of the big drinking generation getting older, as it was rare for people to develop late-onset drug and alcohol habits with no precedent.
“The baby boomer generation had a much greater use of drugs and alcohol than their predecessors,” Professor Draper said.
“It’s that particular generation, and also it coincided with women getting much more into the workforce and the feminist movement having a big influence on what women could do, so there’s been huge societal changes with that particular generation.
“If you’re a woman or man, say 60 years old, and your friends are drinking and you go out and do things together it influences how you behave.”
Historically, women aged 18 to 24 were most likely to exceed the lifetime risk guidelines for alcohol by consuming an average of at least two standard drinks a day over the past 12 months, but the proportion decreased from 20 per cent in 2007 to 12.8 per cent in 2016.
Meanwhile, the proportion of women aged 50 to 59 exceeding the guidelines rose from 11.2 per cent to 13 per cent.
A similar pattern was observed among men, where those aged up to about 40 improved, while men older than 40 had not changed.
The increase in illicit drug use among people in their 40s was particularly significant among males, whose use increased from 15.6 per cent in 2013 to 20 per cent in 2016.
Curtin University National Drug Research Institute’s Professor Steve Allsop said this could reflect a spike in illegal drug use in the late 1990s, with people then aged in their 20s now getting into their 40s.
Although fewer people were drinking overall, those who did were drinking at harmful levels.
“We’ve got some reporting that suggests some good news but on the other hand we’re seeing more intense use, which is increasing harm,” Professor Allsop said.
“So you’ve got to say, ‘Well, the health message isn’t getting through there’.”
St Vincents Hospital drug and alcohol service clinical director Nadine Ezard said the findings demonstrated the need to get people into treatment earlier.
“There’s an almost 20-year delay for alcohol use disorders and we should be bringing that down,” Associate Professor Ezard said.
Hammondcare general manager residential Angela Raguz said the aged care provider’s general policy was to allow people to drink alcohol to make them feel at home, but illicit drugs would not be tolerated and had not arisen as an issue.
This could be because residents had an average age of 85 and drug users did not live that long.
“We haven’t seen cannabis yet but it may become more of an issue in coming years,” Ms Raguz said.
This piece was first seen on ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ 1 June 2017.