When they aren’t opining about roundabouts, politicians and quiet streets, outsiders often form the view that Canberra is, for better or for worse, an overwhelmingly healthy place. There’s clean air, top-notch drinking water and a big lake around which the city’s many exercise junkies may jog or cycle on those crystal clear mornings.
But like in any city, appearances can be deceptive. Canberra has vast numbers of waxing and waning health problems, like self-harm among young people, illicit drug use, rising obesity rates and smoking. And while we may have the highest life-expectancy, we - especially men and children - don’t eat enough vegetables.
We’re a city made up of thousands of people, and we’ve got it all in varying degrees.
Yesterday’s report from the chief health officer bears this out. Canberrans are less likely to smoke than other Australians, and remained among the healthiest populations in the country.
Except for the booze, that is. Canberrans are, like the rest of the country, devoted and regular drinkers, with 79.8 per cent classifying themselves as current drinkers.
But while the proportion of Canberrans who drank at risky levels over a lifetime had dropped, the report highlighted concerning levels of drinking among middle-aged Canberrans, with almost 25 per cent of those aged 40-49 drinking more than two drinks a day, putting them at risk of alcohol-related harm. This figure puts Canberra well above the national average of 20.1 per cent, and in fact was the only age group where Canberrans out-drank their counterparts in the rest of the country.
This is one case where alcohol consumption can and should be looked at as a symptom of something deeper, rather than an isolated problem. In this day and age, there are all kinds of reasons why middle-aged people might drink regularly, and to excess. Financial or family stress, or other health issues, for starters. Marriage breakdowns, mortgage stress, unmanageable children, professional malaise - it’s hard to pinpoint what could be behind excessive drinking for Canberra’s middle-aged, aside from having reached that often-dreaded milestone of turning 40 and beginning that slow march down the latter half of one’s life.
Whatever the reasons, the results of this report are sobering - no pun intended - in relation to alcohol consumption. According to the report, in the ACT, alcohol accounts for 4.2 per cent of the total burden of disease, making it the fourth-highest risk factor leading to ill-health. Excessive drinking is associated with a range of cancers, but do most people actually know what constitutes excessive? Like many unhealthy habits, drinking at harmful levels can be precipitated by a slow slide into excess over many years, from which it’s difficult to return.
As ACT health minister Meegan Fitzharris pointed out in relation to the study, “Prevention is important for Canberrans to be able to live long and healthy lives”.
It’s often easy to point to a lack of community awareness of the risks of certain behaviours, but in this case, a heightened campaign targeted at older adults might be timely.