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Focus on illicit drugs puts Australia’s drinking problem on ice

Our current focus on the drug ice takes the spotlight away from the harms of excessive alcohol use, which is actually a bigger problem in Australia. Photographer/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Recent discussions of Australia’s “ice epidemic” have culminated in a A$9 million government-funded media campaign to raise community awareness of the drug’s harms, particularly in rural areas. We do need to address the harms of illicit drugs, but, in doing so, we mustn’t overlook the greater social impact of excessive alcohol consumption.

A number of commentators have cautioned about the possible negative effects of government fear-mongering on parents, families and communities. Experts have also highlighted the substantial evidence that drug education campaigns are, at best, ineffective and, at worst, encourage experimentation.

But another – largely unremarked on – negative outcome of the strong focus on ice is that it takes the spotlight away from the harms of excessive alcohol use, which is actually a bigger problem in Australia. A reported 2.1% of Australians have used some form of methamphetamine in the last 12 months while 15.6% of people aged 12 or older have consumed 11 or more standard drinks on a single drinking occasion in the same period.

A polarised debate

In what appears to have become a battle between those concerned about the different substances, we are increasingly seeing a debate polarised around which drug is worse, illustrated well by this article in the Herald Sun, arguing that ice is a bigger problem than alcohol:

Yes, there are those who are addicted to alcohol and the consequences of that addiction can ruin lives. But when was the last time an alcoholic shot his girlfriend in the head in a fit of rage?

The thing is, drunk people do kill their spouses, and they appear to do so in droves. Of the 1,565 solved homicides in Australia between 2000 and 2006, 729 (47%) were classified as alcohol-related. Both people had consumed alcohol in 60% of these cases, only the offender in 21%, and only the victim in 19%. Of the homicides involving an intimate partner relationship, between 2000 and 2006, 44% were related to alcohol.

In 2011 alone, there were 29,684 police-reported incidents of alcohol-related domestic violence in the four states and territories where this data is available (NSW, Victoria, WA and NT). When you add to that the other states, and the many cases of domestic violence that go unreported, the scale of the problem becomes enormous.

People who consume the same news have similar perceptions of risk even if they live in different areas. Teresa Avellanosa/Flickr, CC BY

What’s more, data from the 2005 Personal Safety Survey suggests that alcohol contributes to 50.3% of all partner violence, and 73% of physical partner assaults.

So why do we think ice kills and alcohol doesn’t?

The wrong shortcut

The answer lies in a mental shortcut known as the availability heuristic, which helps us make decisions. It helps determine the likelihood of an event by how easily examples of that event come to mind.

The process works really well when we’re deciding what to wear in the morning (how many people can I remember seeing in the office this week in thongs?) but can lead to important biases in the way we make decisions.

Studies show media coverage has a significant impact on what we perceive as risky. Consider this example: a survey of people living in France and Burkina Faso conducted 20 years ago found they shared similar perceptions of the risks in their community – despite their fundamentally different geography, climates, environments and economies. The common factor was that both groups read magazines and newspapers originating in France.

The media have an enormous impact on how “available” a cause of death is in our minds, and may create a false sense of reality. An analysis of the proportion of news coverage of different causes of death in the United States, for instance, found tobacco-related deaths were under-represented (less than a quarter of the expected coverage) but illicit drug use deaths were over-represented (more than 17 times the expected coverage).

This positioning of illicit drugs – in this instance, ice – as a great and immediate risk to young people confuses parents and leads to the oft-heard lament “at least they are only drinking”.

The media have a role to play in creating – and correcting – the effects on communities, including politicians, of the availability heuristic. Perhaps we need to remind people that the reason ice-related homicides are on the front page of the newspaper is because they are rare; the reason alcohol-related homicides aren’t is because there are too many of them to report.

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