Survey of 2500 teens shows rate of young people choosing not to drink rose from a third to over half
The number of young people who abstain from drinking alcohol has dramatically increased, new research shows.
Surveys of the drinking habits of more than 2,500 teenagers show that in the decade leading up to 2010, the rate of young people choosing not to drink climbed from about one in three to over half.
Researchers were aware that the number of teen drinkers had plummeted since 2001, but the study, published by a University of NSW public health academic, Michael Livingston, has shown that the decline was uniform across gender, age, income, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, and teenagers living in the city and country.
“Respondents were approximately twice as likely to report abstention from alcohol in 2010 as 2001 once [these] factors were controlled for,” Livingston said.
Teens were not replacing alcohol with illicit drug use, rates of which had “dropped just as fast among this group”, he added.
Livingston put the trend down to increasing social concerns about the impact of alcohol abuse, more time spent on the internet rather than on activities typically paired with drinking, and the changing composition of Australian society, increasingly made up of young people from lighter drinking cultures.
However, research based on the same National Drug Strategy Household Survey, published by Livingston last year, showed that very heavy drinkers were consuming more alcohol than ever. The top 5% of drinkers in particular were consuming 140 more standard drinks a year than a decade ago.
Risky drinking had declined among teens who continued to use alcohol, but Livingston said the “no real decline in trends in emergency department and police data”.
“So there’s still a group out there who are drinking problematically.”
Results showed the rates of alcohol abstinence declined with age, but Livingston suggested the findings “may be the first sign of a shift in broader population drinking [and] herald a period of declining consumption in Australia”.
“We should expect the declines in problems related to alcohol in young adulthood and beyond as this cohort ages,” he said.
Alcohol abstinence rates among 14- to 17-year-olds increased from 32.9% in 2001 to 50.2% in 2010. Among children between 12 and 15, abstinence had jumped to 77.2% in 2010, up from 67.6% in 2004.
The Australian results echo similar falls in teen drinking rates over the past decade in the United States, England, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Iceland and Norway.
Alcohol policy groups welcomed the findings. “In all the discussion of alcohol-related harms … we often forget that it’s not a consistent pattern, that there are things going in the right direction,” Michael Thorne, the chief executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, said.
Reduced teen drinking “explains the slight reduction in the apparent consumption of alcohol in Australia, which has slipped below 10 litres of pure alcohol per person per year”, he said.
He attributed the trend to greater social awareness of the harm that can result from alcohol abuse. “Parents have become more aware of the risk, including the impact of alcohol on a developing brain,” he said.