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Alcohol harm hiding in the home

Introduction by Croakey: Pubs, clubs and restaurants have been off-limits for many during the COVID-19 pandemic, but this restriction hasn’t curbed Australians’ drinking habits.

In fact, a Foundation for Alcohol and Education (FARE) Alcohol Poll released today has found that the home setting is where some of Australia’s heaviest drinking occurs.

Here Luke Hutchins and Siang Jin Law of FARE outline the poll findings, and call on policymakers to take action on alcohol harm in the home.


Luke Hutchins and Siang Jin Law write:

The COVID-19 lockdowns have impacted licensed venues with restricted trade at different points in time. For Australians who drink alcohol, this has meant consuming alcohol in the home.

But where do people usually drink alcohol? Home is the primary place where most people drink in Australia. The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) Annual Alcohol Poll 2020: Attitudes and Behaviours surveyed more than 2,000 Australians in January 2020 just before COVID-19 lockdowns began in Australia.

The Poll found almost three in four (73%) Australians who drink do so most frequently at home — either their home or someone else’s. This is compared with 15% who drink most frequently at pubs, bars or clubs, and 8% for restaurants.

For many people, it is still surprising to hear that Australian’s drink most frequently in the home. This is because home drinking is hidden from public view.

But home is where policymakers need to turn their attention when considering the health and safety of our communities.

Heavy drinking at home

To further understand what this data means, the poll asked where people drank their largest quantity of alcohol on a single occasion in the past year. Two thirds (67%) of people said it was in the home, while 33% said it was outside the home, such as at a pub, restaurant or event.

In other words, more people engage in heavier drinking sessions inside the home than outside.

The trend is more pronounced for older people, with 77% of people aged over 50 having their heaviest drinking session at home.

But even for young people, the home is also the most common location — 60% of 18-24-year-olds report the home (compared with 24% at a bar and 8% at an event) and 50% of 25-34 year-olds report the home (compared with 25% for a bar and 17% for an event).

The data makes sense when we think about the home drinking environment. At home, it can be harder to track alcohol use. Standard drinks usually aren’t measured. Finishing a drink isn’t punctuated by another visit to the bar either — instead glasses are usually refilled quickly which makes it easier to lose track of how many drinks we’ve had.

Online alcohol retailers

With home as the primary location for drinking, there has been an emergence of online alcohol retailers such as Jimmy Brings, BoozeBud, and companies like BWS and Dan Murphy’s also now delivering.

This proliferation of alcohol delivery into the home has increased during COVID-19, with Woolworth’s third-quarter sales results showing Endeavour Drinks online sales increased by 43%. This is unsurprising as advertising by alcohol retailers has been ubiquitous during COVID-19 lockdowns, with some even offering ‘isolation packs’ for delivery.

FARE’s poll found that of people who had an alcohol delivery arrive within two hours, the majority (70%) drank more than four standard drinks on that occasion and 38% drank 11 or more standard drinks.

This follows a VicHealth survey that found that for people receiving orders within two hours on a weekly basis, the proportion drinking 11 or more standard drinks in one sitting jumped to 60%. The VicHealth survey also found 71% of people receiving weekly deliveries received the alcohol while intoxicated.

Higher standards

So how should we respond to alcohol delivery increasing the risk of heavy drinking at home?

There is a community expectation that alcohol is not sold to a person who is intoxicated, but evidently this expectation is not being upheld with home delivery. There are also risks of alcohol supply to children from delivery, yet to be properly controlled in online sales.

In Australia, government regulation is lagging behind community expectations.

We are beginning to see action with draft legislation coming before the NSW Parliament soon that would introduce a ban on unattended same-day delivery and proper age verification for same day deliveries; however, key issues yet to be addressed are late night delivery and delivery within two hours.

NSW research shows alcohol-related assaults increase significantly later at night, with domestic assaults peaking at 6pm-9pm. Suicides and sudden or unnatural deaths involving alcohol predominantly happen at night, in the home environment, according to 2009 research published in the Journal of Forensic ScienceThere are also other harms in the home that alcohol use can exacerbate, such as child abuse and neglect.

To reduce the risks of these harms and stop retailers from delivering late at night to homes, alcohol home delivery should only occur before 9pm. Currently in Australia, alcohol can be delivered much later. For example, the draft NSW legislation proposes a cut-off delivery time of midnight for all days except for 11pm on Sunday.

Speed of delivery is the other issue. Delivery of alcohol within two hours can extend a drinking session that would have otherwise stopped. In fact, the VicHealth study found that 40% of people would have stopped drinking if this type of alcohol delivery wasn’t available.

Currently there are no limits on the speed of a delivery in Australia. A minimum time of two hours between order and delivery would be a sensible response to ensure alcohol delivery is not supplied to people who are already intoxicated.

There is a high level of public support for action on alcohol harm in the home. FARE’s Poll found 85% of Australians are concerned about alcohol-related family violence and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019 found 78% support stricter enforcement of the law against alcohol supply to people who are intoxicated.

It’s clearly time for Australian governments to properly regulate alcohol delivery retailers — the community expects as much.

Luke Hutchins is FARE’s policy and research adviser and Siang Jin Law is a student at ANU and FARE intern.

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As CEO of the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC), it is my pleasure to write a testimonial for Croakey. In the past three years, VMIAC have happily engaged the services of Marie McInerney and her team at Croakey to cover major events in the life of VMIAC. We have been fortunate to have Croakey cover our awards night last year and our conference the year before. Marie has brilliantly captured the essence of our organisation and the views of our members and stakeholders. I cannot envisage a time when we will not engage Croakey as we find their brand of journalism uplifting, accurate and honest. Marie’s ability to draw out the stories she produces is wonderfully fresh and always empowering. I would not hesitate to recommend Croakey as a leading service to any event.

Maggie Toko

CEO of the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC)

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