The alcohol industry is pushing for new Australian guidelines for alcohol consumption to take into account the "positive health benefits" of drinking, and consider raising the consumption level officially considered low-risk.
In a submission to a review of the guidelines by the National Health and Medical Research Council, Alcohol Beverages Australia claims the health benefits of drinking alcohol include "a reduction in the risk of development of heart disease, reduced risk of stroke and reduced risk of diabetes".
Public health advocates have disputed the independence and methodology of the scientific evidence presented and say softening of the guidelines would put Australians at risk, but fear the alcohol lobby's submission will influence the final recommendations approved by Health Minister Greg Hunt.
ABA is trying to convince regulators that Australians are responsible drinkers who have been subject to a "harsh" definition of unsafe alcohol consumption.
The current guidelines recommend no more than two standard drinks per day to limit the lifetime risk of illness, or four standard drinks in a single session, an amount which "more than doubles the risk of injury" in the six hours after.
ABA chief executive Andrew Wilsmore said those guidelines made Australia's limit among "some of the harshest in the world and no longer in touch with the Australian lifestyle - where drinking in moderation is the new norm".
"It's well past time for governments to give the vast majority of responsible drinkers a fair go and start rewarding them with similar freedoms enjoyed in many other parts of the world," he said.
Mr Wilsmore stopped short of explicitly saying the guidelines should raise the consumption level deemed low-risk, but pointed to the United States - where the guideline for low-risk drinking is the equivalent of 5.6 Australian standard drinks per day for men and 4.2 for women - and the World Health Organisation's definition of "heavy episodic drinking" as "60 or more grams of pure alcohol" (the equivalent of six standard drinks in Australia) on at least one occasion within 30 days.
However, Mr Wilsmore also acknowledged that alcohol "causes harm" and said "there's always going to be challenges with our product".
Peter Miller, a professor of violence prevention and addiction studies at Deakin University, said ABA was engaged in "irresponsible spin", that the industry was only "focused on making profits".
He said if Australia modelled itself on the US, it would not have achieved the life-saving measures of gun control, tobacco plain packaging laws or random roadside breath testing.
The NHMRC is reviewing the latest scientific research on the effects of alcohol to update the guidelines, which have been in place for a decade. A draft is expected to be released for public consultation in the coming weeks.
In its submission to the NHMRC, seen by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Alcohol Beverages Australia said: "We would like to bring your attention to the overwhelming body of evidence that establishes health benefits of alcohol consumption."
The lobby group attached a list of more than 100 scientific research papers it says contain a "weight of evidence" that should be reflected in the new guidelines.
However, Professor Miller said the weight of scientific evidence drawn from "the best, independently conducted new studies" showed there was "no such thing as safe levels of consumption of alcohol".
Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education chief executive Michael Thorn said there was improved evidence of alcohol's long-term health risks - including breast and bowel cancer, cardiovascular disease and dementia - in the decade since the current guidelines were released.
Mr Thorn said if anything, the NHMRC should be expected to bring Australia's guidelines into step with those in the United Kingdom, where the recommended limit is now 11.2 Australian standard drinks per week.
"This reflects the science that total consumption is the issue," he said.
He said ABA's argument that fewer Australians were drinking was "irrelevant" to the question of calculating the scientific risks.
Professor Miller said a number of studies conducted in the past supporting alcohol's health benefits had been based on flawed methodologies.
"The benefits in maybe one of two categories are outweighed by the harms in many others," he said.
Australian Medical Association President Tony Bartone said the alcohol industry was "out of touch" and that any softening of the guidelines would be disastrous.
"Anything to increase above what those guidelines are already would be tantamount to really putting the health of Australians at further risk than they currently are," Dr Bartone said.
Professor Miller said the alcohol industry was a powerful lobby group that had "far too much access" to policy makers.
"These people go in and they say all this crap to our politicians, they do it behind closed doors where it's not out in the open and our politicians then take donations from them," he said.
Lion Pty Ltd, one of Australia's largest alcohol producers and an ABA member, donated $61,000 to the Labor party, $55,300 to the Liberal party and $11,330 to the Nationals in 2017-18, according to disclosure returns lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission.
In July, a draft National Alcohol Strategy being developed through a separate process was leaked to the ABC by public health advocates concerned it had been "watered down" after lobbying by the alcohol industry.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government was "committed to reducing alcohol-related harms" and had committed more than $780 million over four years "to reduce the impact of drug and alcohol misuse".
Mr Hunt said the government would not "pre-empt any response" on the NHMRC review before the final guidelines are released next year.
- SMH/The Age