Aussie attitudes towards drugs are changing

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  Last updated July 21, 2020 at 11:07 am


Fewer Australians are smoking daily than ever before and more are giving up alcohol… but the use of some illicit drugs is up.

drug use_illicit drugs_illicit drug use

Why This Matters: Policy-makers need to keep up with the changing attitudes towards drug use.

Attitudes towards illicit drug use are changing in Australia, according to results from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019, which also found fewer Aussies are smoking daily than ever before.

The three-yearly survey of more than 22,000 Aussies included questions about tobacco use, alcohol consumption and illicit drug use, as well as people’s attitudes towards them.

The results, released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, showed there has been a drop in the non-medical use of painkillers and opioids, but some illicit drug use has increased.

More Aussie supporting cannabis

In an expert reaction to the AusSMC, some experts say this shift in illicit drug use is particularly noteworthy, as this is the first time results have shown more Aussies support regular cannabis use (41%) than those who oppose it (37%).

It is also the first time more Aussies are supporting cannabis (19.6%) than those who support regular tobacco smoking (15.4%).

Also: Pot pills and the pandemic: how our drug use changed during lockdown

According to Dr David Caldicott, Emergency Consultant and Senior Clinical Lecturer in Medicine at ANU, the findings “represent a mixed bag for legislators and our elected representatives”.

“It is clear that attitudes in Australia regarding drugs and alcohol are changing,” he says. “There is almost always a lag between such changes and the introduction of policy that reflects these changes.”

But according to Associate Professor Nicole Lee from the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) at Curtin University, we are already seeing the beginnings of the attitude shifts in legislation around the world.

What about weed?

“Before this there was overwhelming community support for removing criminal penalties (or decriminalisation [of cannabis for personal use]) but not for legalisation,” she says.

“Our neighbours in New Zealand are about to have a referendum on it. A number of government inquiries in Australia have recommended legalisation of cannabis, including most recently the QLD Productivity Commission.”

And while there are always concerns around health associated with illicit drug use, Lee says one of the biggest cannabis harms is actually the risk of contact with the criminal justice system.

As the most-used illicit drug in Australia, this means there are many people at risk.

“When the laws are creating more harms than the drug itself, it’s time to review the laws,” she said.

Smoking is out, vaping is in

With the rise in popularity of e-cigarettes but a drop in cigarette smoking, attitudes towards smoking are being pulled in all directions.

According to public health expert Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman AO from the University of Sydney, Australia are world leaders in low national smoking prevalence and youth smoking rates are the lowest ever recorded in Australia.

There is a rising trend of young adults who have never smoked, and young adults aged 18-24 who have smoked less than 100 cigarettes in their life has risen from 58% to 80% between 2001 and 2019.

“This wonderful trend reflects the impact of continuing “slow burn” policies like tax rises, total advertising bans, plain packaging, graphic health warnings and the thorough denormalisation of smoking in public indoor settings,” Chapman says.

Vaping, on the other hand, seems to be the ‘young, hip’ thing, as 65% of adolescents and 39% of young adults have reported using e-cigarettes despite never having smoked.

Also: Research raises more questions about e-cigarettes

According to the experts, there is growing concern that e-cigarettes may hold smokers more than it helps them quit, and marketing clearly aimed at young people may be enticing non-smokers to pick up the vape.

So while Australia can pat itself on the back with our low cigarette smoking rates, these factors may be why quitting rates aren’t falling as much as they should be.

Dr Michelle Jongenelis from the Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change at the University of Melbourne says these concerning e-cigarette figures are most likely driven by “the vaping industry’s narrative that e-cigarettes are ‘harmless’.”

But e-cigarettes are not harmless and there are “significant health risks associated with their use,” according to Jongenelis – the short term harms have been established but as a relatively new technology, the long term health effects are only just beginning to emerge in current research.

And, of course, alcohol

When it comes to the most commonly used drug in Australia, alcohol, survey results also found consumption has remained relatively steady, but the number of ex-drinkers and those cutting back has risen from 7.6% to 8.9%, and 28% to 31% respectively between 2016 and 2019.

The AIHW does note, however, that the information was gathered in the time period before the 2019-20 summer bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic, so only time will tell how these huge national and international events have changed our attitudes towards drugs and alcohol.

You can read the full comments from the experts here.

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About the Author

Olivia Henry
Olivia Henry is Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days nerding out about the latest research in the hopes that journalists will nerd out too. Olivia has Bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Science and Media (Journalism), and has studied in Japan and Spain. Before joining the AusSMC in 2018, Olivia worked at Fairfax Media, SciWorld, Channel 44 Adelaide and interned at Australia's Science Channel. If you like this super-funky-science-machine, you can catch her talking science on 2CC Canberra or hosting the Night Shift on Radio Adelaide.

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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