3 year priority: More people and environments that support effective reduction in harmful alcohol use
While overall levels of alcohol consumption in Victoria are relatively stable, alcohol-related harms have increased significantly in recent years. Most Victorians drink responsibly, however a significant proportion of the population still drink in a manner that puts them at risk of injury from a single occasion of drinking, or at risk of chronic disease over the longer term.
Alcohol-related harm is a significant preventable health issue. Every year in Victoria, alcohol causes over 1200 deaths and nearly 40,000 hospitalisations. Alcohol also causes a range of social problems that affect drinkers and those around them.
On the flipside, consuming alcohol within low-risk drinking guidelines or abstaining can improve physical and mental wellbeing and social connection, and reduce the risk of injury and chronic diseases.
Discussion of Australia’s problematic ‘alcohol culture’ has increased in recent years, as has the importance of a public health response to change it.
VicHealth defines alcohol culture as the way people drink, including the formal rules, social norms, attitudes and beliefs around what is and what is not socially acceptable for a group of people before, during and after drinking.
The most recent VicHealth Indicators Survey, published in November 2016, found that almost 500,000 Victorians drink 11 or more drinks on a single occasion – the equivalent of a bottle and a half of wine, or half a bottle of hard liquor – and they’re doing this on a monthly basis.
Alcohol Culture Change grants initiative
Across two funding stages, VicHealth’s Alcohol Culture Change Grants Initiative for local councils provides a pool of $1.3 million to local councils to change risky drinking cultures across a number of sub-populations including young people disengaged from education, trade workforces and middle-aged men. The council grants came as VicHealth released results from a 2016 Community Attitudes Survey showing young Victorians often feel pressured by their friends to drink, and that the majority of Victorians don’t want to live in a society where it’s seen as acceptable to set out to get drunk.
Eight local councils were given funding for stage one to scope and plan interventions. Of these, the four projects demonstrating the most potential were offered further funding to deliver their ideas over the next two years.
The councils are now working with research partners, community groups and workplaces on a range of projects to target groups of risky drinkers in their local area.
The new projects will be delivered in City of Port Phillip, City of Stonnington, City of Melbourne, City of Wodonga, Horsham Rural City Council and City of Whittlesea. We look forward to seeing the impact these grants will have on the communities they target.
VicHealth partnered with La Trobe’s Centre for Alcohol Policy Research (CAPR) to explore alcohol cultures in middle- and older-age groups. This is because, unlike their younger peers, Victorians in middle and older age are not reducing their risky drinking behaviours. This research informed the second stage of the Alcohol Culture Change Initiative which has awarded almost $1 million to five creative new projects that will look to change alcohol drinking cultures in a range of groups, including residential college university students, construction workers, and baby-boomer and generation X drinkers in regional and rural areas.
The Good Sports Program is a free, national accreditation program for community sporting clubs that focuses on alcohol management as a way to influence the drinking culture within the club context. VicHealth provided the initial funding for a pilot program in 2000, implemented by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF). We continued to support Good Sports after its formal launch in 2001 and helped the program to continuously innovate and improve over time.
The Good Sports Program is now Australia’s largest and longest-running health initiative in community sports, involving almost 8000 clubs across the country and still growing.
VicHealth’s funding of the Good Sports Program ceased in June 2017 following the implementation of a comprehensive step-down funding model over three years to ensure the program would be sustainable. As VicHealth withdraws from direct involvement in the Good Sports, funds can be redirected into new areas of innovation to promote the health of the Victorian – and broader Australian – community.
Alcohol culture change: MIDY (Mobile Intervention for Drinking in Young people
Combining young Australians’ attachment to their mobile phones with a positive way to monitor their drinking on a night out represents an innovative approach to changing the nation’s alcohol culture.
The Burnet Institute ran a pilot program with 42 young people that established the possibilities of such an approach. Now VicHealth and the National Health and Medical Research Council are funding the next stage of the project, which will test whether the mobile phone intervention works to change young people’s drinking habits and associated risky behaviour.
Burnet Institute deputy program director Dr Megan Lim said the early research revealed that one of the key considerations for young drinkers was the cost of a night out. She recalled one participant saying it would be horrible to have to go to hospital after a night of heavy drinking, but it would be worse to have spent all their holiday savings on the night’s drinking.
The intervention is being trialled among more than 300 young drinkers and will centre on three phases during their evening out. It starts with a screening process that enables the young person to explain their drinking habits and what is important to them. Those responses determine the messaging during the evening.
There will be a series of personally tailored hourly ‘check-ins’ from 7pm until 2am (although participants can opt out of these if they want), and a message the next morning. The messages help to measure alcohol consumption on the night and also provide interventions based on questions about how much the drinker has had to eat, if they’ve had sufficient water during the evening, and reminding them that they have an appointment first thing the next day.
“Young people don’t want a negative message – that drinking causes cancer, for example. So we make sure that we frame it positively,” Dr Lim says.
The simplicity, familiarity and lack of cost attached to the messaging project gives the initiative a strong equity component that could ultimately give the idea widespread uptake, with application to the annual ‘Schoolies’ events. In the interim, another part of the research will be undertaken at the start of the Victorian university year when many students engaging with O (Orientation) Week festivities will be encouraged to trial the intervention.
The goal is to make minor changes in behaviour: reducing a night’s intake from eight to seven drinks reduces the risk of harm significantly.