Once a nation of beer drinkers, we are guzzling less of the stuff than at any time in the past 61 years.
But as we have been switching to wine our alcohol intake has been climbing, in part because wine contains more alcohol than beer and in part because the alcohol content of wine has been climbing while the alcohol in beer has been sliding.
New estimates from the Bureau of Statistics suggest we drank 107 litres of beer per adult over 15 years of age in the year to June 2009, well down from a peak exceeding 190 litres in the mid 1970s.
But we downed an all-time record 29 litres of wine, double what we drank in the mid-1970s.
Were it not for the very clear one-off slide in spirits consumption that followed the introduction of the alcopops tax in April 2008 we would have been ingesting more alcohol than at any time in a decade...
The alcopops tax crushed the premixed drinks business in 2008-09, slicing 30 per cent off sales and cutting consumption of alcohol in that form by 5.6 million litres. Alcohol sold as spirits jumped a partially offsetting 2.7 million litres.
"The industry was clever about encouraging people to shift their preferences, says Tanya Chikritzhs of the National Drug Research Institute. "They offered free 2-litre bottles of Coke if you bought a bottle of Jim Beam, encouraging people to mix their own. As you would expect we had an immediate rapid decline in sales of alcopops, some increase in sales of other spirits but we are likely to go back to steady increases."
The 2008-09 financial year was one of only two in the past decade in which alcohol consumption fell. Pushing alcohol consumption up has been a relentless increase in the alcohol content of wine, from around 11 per cent in the 1970s to 13 per cent today.
"You can't get a red under 14 per cent, pretty much, says Associate Professor Chikritzhs. "Some are even 17 or 18 per cent. It's part of an international trend toward richer tastes."
Wine makers are free to boost their alcohol content without a tax penalty because wine is taxed by volume and price rather content, a concession the Henry Tax Review recommended abolishing.
By contrast beer manufacturers have been cutting their alcohol content in order to cope with a steadily rising indexed alcohol tax.
The Bureau of Statistics says in the past five years the average alcohol content of beer has slipped from 4.75 to 4.69 per cent. Alcohol consumption per person has been rising throughout the past decade until 2008-09 when the alcopops tax cut helped it slide 1.2 per cent.
Officially we are each swallowing an average of 10.4 litres of alcohol per year, a figure Associate Professor Chikritzhs believes to be an underestimate and to understate the growth in alcohol consumption.
"The Bureau's figures exclude home brew, home wine making, home distilling and also commercial cider sales. Anecdotal evidence suggests they are climbing."
A separately released 2008 survey of school children aged 12 to 15 finds 61 per cent had consumed alcohol over the previous year and 23 per cent over the previous week. 20 per cent of of 17-year olds had drunk at risky levels in the past week. Around 14 per cent of students aged 12 to 17 had used cannabis.
Drinking less...Published in today's SMH and Age
Litres of beer per head
Litres of wine per head
. The end of cheap wine, and other things to look for in the Henry Review
. "To highlight how strange tax has become, just turn your attention to brandy"
. Less alcohol in the beer, less cocoa in the chocolate...
. Tax alcopops. To extinction.