License article

Drugs and alcohol: the secret life of us

Scores of middle-class Australians are drinking at dangerous levels and ending up in emergency departments with alcohol-related problems, the largest survey of Australians' present drug and alcohol use has found.

Addiction medicine specialists say the Global Drug Survey of 22,000 people worldwide has identified a largely invisible group of professional Australians who are drinking excessively, causing untold harm to themselves and others.

The survey of 6605 Australians conducted in partnership with Fairfax Media in November found that while 85 per cent of respondents had taken at least one illegal drug in their life, alcohol was the most popular and commonly used drug.

Survey founder and psychiatrist Adam Winstock said of the 6000 people who took the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test in the survey, more than half were drinking at risky levels.

Dr Winstock said although the high level alcohol use was broadly equivalent to what is seen in the general population, the Global Drug Survey conducted in 2011 found about one-fifth of the people deemed to have a serious problem thought their drinking was average or below average.

He said the results suggested there were many ''functional alcoholics'' in the community who did not realise they had a problem.


''A lot of people who drink a lot think as long as they're not waking up in the morning shaking and sweating they're not alcohol dependent. It's just not the case,'' he said.

''And of course if you drink fairly heavily, it's likely that you hang around with people who also drink fairly heavily, so you simply don't recognise that your behaviour is abnormal.''

The survey also found that 60 of the 6000 respondents who drink alcohol had sought emergency medical treatment under the influence in the previous 12 months. Of those, 58 per cent were admitted to hospital.

The most common number of drinks consumed prior to seeking emergency medical help was 12 standard drinks but 20 per cent had drunk more than 20 standard drinks and 7.5 per cent more than 30 standard drinks - the equivalent of more than three bottles of wine.

While alcohol was ranked highly for helping people relax and unwind, it also topped the list of drugs people were concerned about, with 70 per cent saying they were worried about someone else's drinking. Forty per cent said they wanted to drink less and 13 per cent said they wanted help to cut down or stop.

The director of Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, Dan Lubman, said the results were consistent with a large body of evidence showing Australia had an increasing alcohol problem.

Professor Lubman said the last national mental health survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed 80 per cent of people with a diagnosable alcohol problem were not accessing professional help, suggesting an enormous amount of unmet need.

''People often don't realise it is an issue. I often see people in hospital after they've come in with an injury after a night out drinking where they've broken a bone, been assaulted or been involved in an accident and they don't think they have an alcohol problem because all their friends drink like them,'' he said.

Professor Lubman said a big part of the problem was how omnipresent alcohol had become with increasing liquor licences being issued and widespread marketing of alcohol as an enjoyable part of leisure time.

''Every occasion now, whether it's a school activity, a sporting event, getting together with friends or just a barbie in the park, drinking has become normative. In fact, if you don't drink on these occasions, people ask you what's wrong with you,'' he said.

He said the community needed to have a robust discussion about how to change the culture and protect people, with increased taxes on alcohol or stricter rules on advertising.

If you want to check your alcohol use visit