In Dry July, ponder. . .does a glass of wine a day really keeps the doctor away?

The old adage of ‘a glass of red wine a day keeps the doctor away’ is certainly convenient for those of us who are connoisseurs of the popular fermented grape juice, which many devotees over the centuries have likened to ‘nectar of the gods’.  Over the years I’m sure many of us have read about research which suggests that a moderate intake of alcohol improves cardiovascular health. Some research has even suggested that moderate red wine consumption may be beneficial to more than just your heart. Yet I’m fairly certain we’ve also simultaneously come across research which has contradicted these findings…It’s certainly a popular topic that is constantly ‘under the microscope’ and new research findings regularly make their way into the media.

Either way, I think the key takeaway from all these studies is ‘moderation’, an important topic which was prevalent in the recent update released by the OECD on trends in alcohol consumption.

Did you know?

Average alcohol consumption has decreased by 2.5 percent in OECD countries over the past 20 years. But the devil is in the details in terms of changes in the pattern and distribution of alcohol consumption, and some of the facts may surprise you:

  • People with more education and higher socioeconomic status (‘SES’) are more likely to drink alcohol;
  • Less educated and lower SES men, as well as more educated and higher SES women, are more likely to indulge in risky drinking;
  • Both the proportion of children (aged 15 and under) who have drunk alcohol, and those who have experienced drunkenness have increased.

It goes without saying that heavy alcohol consumption can have adverse social, economic and health effects on both drinkers and non-drinkers.

The OECD reports on a range of policy tools which have been used to try and reduce damage done by harmful heavy drinking, broadly categorised into the following:

  • Prices – increasing taxes, setting minimum/floor prices;
  • Promotion – greater regulation of advertising (limiting the when, where, and content);
  • Health care – implementation of alcohol screening and enabling more ready access to effective pharmacological and psychosocial treatments;
  • Police – stricter laws and enforcement against drinking and driving.

The OECD reports that this problem can’t be solved by any of the above policies if applied in isolation. Complexities arise because different people have different behavioural responses to different policies, which can be influenced by their level of drinking, age, socioeconomic status, level of education, gender, biological predisposition to alcohol addiction, etc.

I would imagine that pricing policies will have more impact on heavy drinkers of lower SES compared to those of higher SES. There are still other considerations, what do you tax? The “alcopop” tax was introduced in Australia in 2008 (a 70 percent increase in tax on pre-mixed drinks) in an attempt to curb binge drinking amongst teenagers. A later study found that it had failed to reduce the number of hospital admissions for alcohol-related harm in young people, although a potential reduction in the number of harmful drinking episodes cannot be elicited from the data. Not surprisingly, Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed that drinkers switched their preference and consumption from pre-mixed drinks to pure spirits. Changing people’s alcohol consumption behaviour is a difficult endeavour. There are those who believe it should begin with a coherent system that taxes all types of alcoholic beverages based on alcohol content, yet I can only imagine the controversy something like this could stir.

Health care interventions in curbing harmful drinking behaviour tends to be costly, although the benefits of reduced downstream health care costs often offsets the costs of implementation. Although systematic alcohol screening of patients, in primary health care can identify more problem drinkers, ready access to health care can be an issue in rural areas. Similarly, ready access to, affordability of, and compliance with mental health and pharmacological treatments are significant barriers to effective treatment, as with many other health conditions.

What can we do?

As with most societal issues, a coherent, multi-pronged approach is required to address complex problems associated with harmful drinking. I don’t purport to have the answers, yet I do think it is worthwhile to stop and reflect upon the issue. Developing useful measures of identifying hazardous alcohol consumption is important since not all alcohol consumption is bad (remember the red wine studies). Alcohol consumption has deep cultural roots across many countries and has existed for millennia. I’m sure we’d all agree that it can play an important role as a social lubricant in many aspects of modern culture (Friday night drinks anyone??).

In the meantime, we could do ‘our bit’ by challenging ourselves to go booze-free for a month by signing up to the ‘Dry July’ initiative.

For those of you who don’t know, ‘Dry July’ is a fundraiser that raises money to support adults living with cancer. The money goes toward improving the wellbeing of adult cancer patients by providing funds to create better services and environments for them and their families. Becoming a DJ – no, not a disc jockey – (DJ = [dee-jay] noun: a person or team actively sponsored to participate in Dry July)[1] – offers you the chance to reflect upon your own drinking habits whilst simultaneously raising money for a good cause.

I hereby challenge you to become a DJ and forego a month of Friday night drinks!

Deniece Fon is a consultant in our R&D tax practice. She has a Bachelor of Science (Physiology, a Bachelor of Engineering (Materials Science and Engineering) (1st class Honours) and a PhD in Biomaterials Engineering.

[1] Dry July website

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of KPMG, an Australian partnership and a member firm of the KPMG network of independent member firms affiliated with KPMG International.


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