23 Jan, 2015 Last updated: 30 Mar, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

Opinion piece first published on Women's Agenda on 23 January 2015.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter

It's Friday. And not just any Friday, but a Friday of a glorious long weekend. What's not to love about the Australia Day weekend, you might ask? The tennis, the cricket, beach-time, barbecues, picnics, spending time with family and friends.

Unfortunately, Australia Day weekend is also synonymous with alcohol. VicHealth research shows that this holiday weekend is a peak time for alcohol-related harm, including admissions to hospital emergency departments.

Despite increased media coverage and public debate about alcohol-related harm and injury, almost half of Australians drink at levels associated with significant risk of short-term harm according to national responsible drinking guidelines. The guidelines recommend drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day to reduce the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease, and no more than four standard drinks on a single drinking occasion to reduce the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion.

Worryingly, there's a disconnect between the amount people are drinking and how they believe it will impact their future health.

A new national survey released today from VicHealth, in partnership with FebFast, sought to learn more about Australians' alcohol consumption and their perceptions of general health and wellbeing.

Australians' attitudes toward their health, alcohol consumption and taking a break from alcohol involved surveying more than 2000 people across Australia.

The findings were concerning.  Although many Australians are drinking at risky levels – nearly half (46%) reported drinking five or more standard drinks on a single occasion in the last three months – the majority do not think their alcohol consumption is a problem.

Eight out of ten Australians (77%) aren't worried about their drinking, when in fact many drink at a level that is putting them at risk of short-term harm. Young drinkers in particular are most at risk with 50% of 18-24-year-olds and 56% of 25-34-year-olds being classified as risky drinkers.

What interested me in particular was that men are more likely to be risky drinkers than women, while women are more likely to be non-drinkers.

Women are also more likely to agree that alcohol is a serious issue for the community, and are more receptive to the idea of abstaining from alcohol, and more likely to report that they would find giving up alcohol for a month easy.

In Australia, alcohol is second only to tobacco as a preventable cause of drug-related health and hospitalisation. In 2010 alone, alcohol was the cause of 5544 deaths and more than 150,000 hospitalisations in Australia, more than 100,000 being men.

In Victoria, alcohol is one of the top 10 avoidable causes of disease and death and is estimated to cost $4.3 billion every year to the health and justice systems, workplaces, families and individual Victorians.

I'm not suggesting banning alcohol, far from it.  I, along with many Australians, enjoy a drink.  What I would love to see, however, is a change to our drinking culture so everyone can have an enjoyable and safe night out, where people don't feel as though getting drunk is necessary, or acceptable, in order to have a good time. While the majority of people drink responsibly, today's survey shows that too many are drinking at risky levels.

Drinkers need to be aware of the health risks of drinking too much and take steps to reduce their alcohol consumption.

A drinking session doesn't only result in a hangover. The long-term consequences can include liver cirrhosis, stroke, obesity, cancer, depression and some 60 other serious illnesses that are directly linked to alcohol.

We live in a culture that encourages drinking – at sports events, parties or a BBQ, and when celebrating holidays like Australia Day. But it's time to take a break.

On 1 February, thousands of people across the country will give up alcohol for 28 days as part of this year's FebFast. The annual challenge encourages people to say no to their 'vices' for the month while raising money to support young people experiencing alcohol and other drug-related problems.

It's a great way to give the body a healthy break and better understand your relationship with alcohol.

And we know that FebFast works in helping people reduce their alcohol intake. A VicHealth evaluation of the program, conducted in 2011, found that almost half of those surveyed who had given up alcohol for the month of February also reduced their alcohol consumption on an ongoing basis after FebFast had finished.

Results from today's survey shows that the will is there; 69% of Australian drinkers surveyed said they would consider giving up alcohol for 28 days.

So this weekend, as you enjoy a glass of wine or beer, ask yourself if you'd be up for the challenge.

One month. 28 days. One new lease of life.

I'm doing it, why not join me?

– Jerril

Sign up for FebFast at www.febfast.org.au.