Alcohol tops study ranking drug harms in Australia

Alcohol harms.




Harmful substances all – and if you were to ask a person on the street their thoughts on Australia’s most harmful overall drug, there is a good chance one of them would be included in the answer.

If the same question were posed to GPs on the frontlines of drug-dependence treatment, however, the answer would likely be quite different.


‘You’ll see the stories of ice addicts in the media. They’re drugs which are important, but are much less common in primary care,’ Melbourne GP and addiction medicine specialist Dr Paul Grinzi has told newsGP.

A new Australia-first study, which examined 22 drugs and measured risk to individuals as well as damage to society, has found that alcohol causes more overall harm to the Australian community than any other drug, including crystal methamphetamine (ice) and heroin.

The study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, saw 25 drug-harm experts score 22 common drugs – both licit and illicit – on 16 criteria.

Of these, nine were related to harms that a drug causes individual users (including illness, injury and death), and seven to harms to others in the community (including violence, crime, unemployment, economic costs and relationship breakdowns).

The experts ranked alcohol as the most harmful drug overall to individuals and others – largely due the number of related deaths, injuries, family adversity and economic costs of alcohol abuse – followed by crystal methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyls, tobacco, methadone and pharmaceutical opioids.

‘Alcohol is an accepted part of Australian culture, so harms are often under the radar. But, as a GP, you can see them front and centre – if you recognise the signs. Hypertension, reflux disease, osteoporosis, cognitive impairment, heart disease,’ Dr Grinzi said.

‘There’s a whole bunch of issues where alcohol can contribute.’

According to lead researcher Associate Professor Yvonne Bonomo, alcohol-related harm is responsible for close to 6000 deaths in Australia every year.

‘That’s about one person every 90 minutes,’ she told Fairfax. ‘Yet up to half a million Australians are unable to access the help they need from alcohol and other drug treatment services, with the largest unmet demand being for alcohol dependence.

‘Once people are really in the grips of alcohol dependence they start to lose what we call the tangibles, like loss of job, loss of house. For the first time, we examined all those harms to the drinker and those around them.’

Alcohol cost the Australian community an estimated $6.8 billion annually a year compared to $5 billion for methamphetamine, the study found.

The study ranked fentanyls the most dangerous drug to users based on the risk of death, followed by heroin and crystal meth.