July 24, 2020

Update on Australian drug use

Couple watches sun set over Brisbane

July 2020: New data from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey has been released, offering an update on the state of alcohol and other drug use in Australia. 

Since the survey is run every two to three years, it’s a great opportunity to look at trends over time and take stock of Australia’s current levels of use.

So, what do the recent numbers look like?

Some illicit drug use has increased

The 2019 data shows a statistically significant increase in the number of people who have used some types of illicit drugs at least once in their lifetime. 

These figures include people who have used an illicit drug in the past year as well as people who have used an illicit drug at some point in their life, but not in the past 12 months.

The illicit drugs that showed an increase in lifetime use include:

  • cannabis - 1% increase to 36%
  • hallucinogens (like LSD or ‘magic mushrooms’) - 1% increase to 10.4%
  • ecstasy - 1.3% increase to 12.5%
  • inhalants (like nitrous oxide or ‘nangs’) - 0.6% increase to 4.8%
  • ketamine - 1% increase to 3.1%
  • cocaine - 2.2% increase to 11.2%.1

For Australians who recently used an illicit drug in the past year, cocaine has seen the biggest increase with 4.2% of Australians in 2019 having used it in the past year, compared to 2.5% in 2016.1

While we should note this data was collected pre-COVID, it’s still important to consider as this rate is the highest it has been in almost 20 years.

Alcohol use has decreased in some groups

The good news is that more people, specifically men, say they’re cutting back on the amount of alcohol they consume. We’re also seeing that 20.9% of people 18 years and older are making the choice not to consume alcohol.1

Overall, younger people are now less likely to use alcohol and other drugs, as well as tobacco, than younger people in 2001.1

The number of Australians aged 18-24 years who chose not to drink alcohol increased by 11.3% between 2001 and 2019, from 9.7% to 21.0%. 

The number of Australians aged 25-29 years who chose not to drink increased by 15.2% between 2001 and 2019, from 8.8% to 24.0%.

While this is good news for shifting Australia’s drinking culture and normalising alcohol consumption as a choice and not an assumption, we still have a long way to go in reducing harms.

Alcohol consumption is still hurting Australians

Despite positive improvements, 1 in 4 Australians are still consuming alcohol at risky levels on at least a monthly basis, which puts people at risk for intoxication-related accidents and injury, including accidental deaths. 

Additionally, 1 in 6 are still consuming alcohol in excess of the lifetime risk guidelines, which put people at increased risk for a range of alcohol-related diseases including seven types of cancer, liver cirrhosis, and heart disease.

Although more people are choosing not to drink during pregnancy, there is still a significant number – around 35% - who do.1 The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends that people who are pregnant, or planning a pregnancy, don’t consume any alcohol at all as the safest option.

Approximately 1 in 10 people who consume alcohol may be experiencing a form of dependence on it. Looking at the Australian population aged 14 years and over, this could mean that 7.5% of people may be experiencing a type of dependence on alcohol.1 The survey further highlights that an additional 22% are likely consuming alcohol in a harmful way.

These findings highlight the importance of continuing prevention programs, providing accurate information, and expanding access to treatment in order to reduce the harms from alcohol and other drugs in Australia.

Learn more about how to reduce the risks of alcohol.

  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019. Canberra: AIHW; 2020.

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