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Why the rich are drinking more than the poor

Well-off people drink more because they can,  or because they can't not.

Well-off people drink more because they can, or because they can't not. Photo: Getty

Where are the big drinkers in Australia? And what are the main trends in consumption?

A new study from the University of Queensland goes some way to answering these questions, with limitations.

Scientists from UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences analysed wastewater samples collected from 50 sites across Australia.

They did this for seven years, between 2016 and 2023. The sampling covered 50 per cent of the population.

The idea was “to assess long-term trends in alcohol consumption based on community socioeconomic status and remoteness”.

The findings

Overall, the researchers, from UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences, found that “people from a higher socioeconomic status drink more alcohol on average than those of lower socioeconomic background”.

People with more money, education and access to healthcare – people who you might say should know better – are drinking more than people with worse jobs and income, poorer education and less access to doctors.

This is a simple enough finding if you contain your focus to our cities, where some suburbs can afford to raise a glass or three, and other suburbs are counting their pennies what with the cost-of-living crisis.

In a prepared statement, Dr Ben Tscharke from UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences said the finding “could be due to a variety of factors including affordability of alcohol and lifestyle, with Australians of a higher socioeconomic status more likely to engage in social activities that involve drinking”.

Maybe. But it gets tricky

There are other trends to consider, namely the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown years. Plenty of studies have emerged that found Australians, notably women with children, found escape from stress in the bottle.

As reported at NewsGP in 2022, there was, reportedly, “a sustained increase in spending on alcohol by both low and higher-income households between May 2020 to February 2021 compared with the previous year”.

Meanwhile, “the Australian Drug Foundation found that 29 per cent of parents increased their drinking, with 14 per cent reporting drinking daily”.

However, “younger Australians have reduced their drinking, potentially due to more parental supervision or reduced opportunities to socialise or frequent drinking establishments”.

Keeping all this in mind, it’s interesting that the UQ team reported that alcohol consumption dropped by approximately 4.5 per cent in major cities, over the seven years. Not a lot.

Regional cities are harder to read

The researchers found that alcohol consumption is also more prominent in regional communities – which tend to have a mini-city demographic in one contained area. There are people doing pretty well, hard-working battlers with children, and a hefty representation of the unemployed.

Because the study is limited to geography, we can’t say for sure who is doing the heavy lifting of lager and liquor. Local businessmen? Teachers and police? Volunteers and pensioners? Or everybody?

What the research did find was a drop in alcohol consumption in regional and remote areas. This was by approximately 2.5 per cent and 3 per cent respectively over the seven-year period.

And this is the researchers’ main concern.

Study co-author Associate Professor Phong Thai said although there was a decline in alcohol consumption in Australia, it wasn’t consistent across population groups.

“We found the decline of alcohol consumption was steeper in cities than regional and remote areas, while there were smaller annual decreases in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged areas,” Thai said.

“There’s a risk that if this trend continues it may increase Australian health inequalities.”

She said “policy and prevention work should be appropriately targeted in these areas to produce more equitable long-term outcomes”.

One also has to factor in that prices for everyday goods are higher in regional remote areas. That includes fruit and vegetables, which is often of poor quality.

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