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Thursday, 3 February 1994
Page: 340

Senator ZAKHAROV —My question, which is directed to the Minister for Health, refers to recent reports that brain shrinkage is associated with moderate alcohol consumption. Are steps being taken by the government to educate people about the risk of adverse consequences of alcohol consumption, even at a moderate level?

Senator RICHARDSON —I hope that the laughter is not coming from those who ought to be listening more carefully than others to the answer to this question. The question concerns brain shrinkage from alcohol consumption, and I would have thought that would be of interest to all senators. Having looked at some of them over time, I am sure it would be of particular interest to a few.

  Given that brain shrinkage and impaired brain function are usually associated with heavy drinking and alcoholism, the study by Professor Harper, to which Senator Zakharov referred, does raise questions about what a safe level of alcohol consumption might be. Obviously, when we look at liver disease, strokes and brain damage that are often associated with excessive alcohol consumption, this kind of study is something that we all ought to consider.

  Alcohol is second only to tobacco as the major cause of drug related mortality in Australia. Approximately 6,600 deaths last year, or more than a quarter of all drug related deaths, were attributed to alcohol. The national campaign against drug abuse estimated that alcohol abuse in 1990 cost Australia almost $7 billion—more than three times the total Commonwealth and state government revenue from alcohol.

  Alcohol is responsible also for the majority of drug deaths in young persons aged 15 to 34. On the other hand, studies have indicated that low to moderate consumption may in fact be associated with health benefits—for instance, a lowered risk of heart and circulatory disease.

Senator Calvert —Oh good!

Senator RICHARDSON —Senator Calvert is happy with that line. I am glad to hear that. Estimating levels of consumption which are safe for all people, though, is a pretty complex, if not impossible, task. Factors such as gender, age and existing health nutrition as well as the manner, frequency and circumstances in which alcohol is consumed all have health consequences.

  The NHMRC has addressed the question of whether there is a safe level of consumption of alcohol for men and women. It has recommended that education campaigns be continued. It emphasises that, in any given situation, responsibility involves a number of environmental factors, as well as other factors, and the recognition that no absolutely safe level of consumption can be recommended.

  The NHMRC also recommends that strategies be adopted by governments to encourage a change in community attitudes towards drinking, including the recognition that responsible drinking involves the concept of an acceptable level of risk. It has also recommended that the following guidelines be promoted as being consistent with responsible drinking. For men, consumption should not exceed four units or 40 grams of absolute alcohol a day on a regular basis, or 28 units a week. For women, that consumption should not exceed two units or 20 grams a day, or 14 units a week on a regular basis.

  It has also recommended that binge drinking is potentially hazardous and that people should have at least two alcohol free days a week. I might indicate that I have been managing this of late. The job of Minister for Health is great; it does change one's perceptions! It is also recommended that abstinence be promoted as desirable during pregnancy. I hope that an adult alcohol education and awareness campaign can have as an overarching component a national, comprehensive and ongoing alcohol education strategy.