Wastewater reveals socioeconomic link to alcohol consumption

University of Queensland

People from a higher socioeconomic status drink more alcohol on average than those of lower socioeconomic background, according to new research from The University of Queensland.

Dr Ben Tscharke from UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (QAEHS) said the team analysed wastewater samples collected from 50 sites across Australia between 2016 and 2023, covering 50 per cent of the population.

“We used wastewater analysis to assess long-term trends in alcohol consumption based on community socioeconomic status and remoteness,” Dr Tscharke said.

“We found alcohol consumption is more prominent in regional communities and areas with higher socioeconomic status, which includes higher levels of education, income and skilled occupation.

“This could be due to a variety of factors including affordability of alcohol and lifestyle, with Australians of a higher socioeconomic status more likely to engage in social activities that involve drinking.”

The research team reported alcohol consumption dropped by approximately 4.5 per cent in major cities, and by approximately 2.5 per cent and 3 per cent in regional and remote areas respectively over the 7 year period.

Study co-author Associate Professor Phong Thai said although there was a decline in alcohol consumption in Australia, it wasn’t consistent across population groups.

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

“There’s a risk that 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.”

The study was part of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program The study was part of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program led by UQ and The University of South Australia that enabled regular monitoring of alcohol use in cities, regional and remote areas.

The study was published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Image above left: Dr Tscharke with a wastewater sample.

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