Higher socioeconomic status correlates with greater alcohol consumption, new data from wastewater shows. 

Researchers have analysed wastewater samples collected from 50 sites across Australia between 2016 and 2023, covering 50 per cent of the Australian population.

“We used wastewater analysis to assess long-term trends in alcohol consumption based on community socioeconomic status and remoteness,” says study leader Dr Ben Tscharke from the Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (QAEHS) at The University of Queensland 

The data shows that alcohol consumption is more prevalent in regional communities and areas with higher socioeconomic status, characterised by higher levels of education, income, and skilled occupation. 

According to Dr Tscharke, this trend could be attributed to factors such as the affordability of alcohol and lifestyle choices, with higher socioeconomic groups more likely to engage in social activities that involve drinking.

The research reported an overall decline in alcohol consumption across Australia over the seven-year period, with a 4.5 per cent drop in major cities, and approximately 2.5 per cent and 3 per cent decreases in regional and remote areas, respectively. 

Study co-author Associate Professor Phong Thai noted the variability in the rate of decline among different population groups. 

“We found the decline of alcohol consumption was steeper in cities than in regional and remote areas, while there were smaller annual decreases in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged areas,” Professor Thai said.

This uneven decline in alcohol consumption could potentially exacerbate existing health inequalities in Australia. 

“If this trend continues, it may increase Australian health inequalities, which is why it is necessary to maintain a sustained and multi-faceted effort to reduce the harms associated with alcohol consumption in more disadvantaged areas. 

“Policy and prevention work should be appropriately targeted in these areas to produce more equitable long-term outcomes,” Professor Thai says.

The study, published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, used wastewater analysis to measure alcohol use across communities. 

The data was collected as part of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program, a collaborative effort between UQ and The University of South Australia.

The latest findings from the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program, Report 21, provide a broader context for understanding drug and alcohol use in Australia. 

The report highlighted an increase in the consumption of illicit drugs like methylamphetamine, cocaine, and MDMA between August 2022 and August 2023. 

Analysis suggests methylamphetamine consumption alone accounted for 85 per cent of the estimated $12.4 billion spent on these substances.

“Our wastewater analysis is used in conjunction with seizure, arrest, price, health, and availability data to reveal drug market resilience and points of vulnerability,” said Heather Cook, CEO of the ACIC.

“This intelligence is crucial for developing coordinated strategies to improve community safety and combat the threat of serious and organised crime groups.”