Drugs in Australia 2010 assembles the most recently available information about tobacco, alcohol and other drugs in Australia from a variety of data sources. It is a reference publication for those looking for accessible information about drug-related issues in Australia. The report presents information on the prevalence of tobacco, alcohol and other drug use in the community; and on treatment services, drug-related health issues, and drugs in crime and law enforcement. It includes a special focus on two areas Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and patterns of drug use at key life stages.

Patterns of drug use

Tobacco and alcohol

Tobacco and alcohol are the drugs most commonly used by the Australian population.

Tobacco smoking is the leading cause of preventable illness and death in Australia, accounting for eight% of the total burden of disease in 2003. Total smoking-related costs to society – including those for healthcare and lost productivity, and intangible social costs – were estimated at $31.5 billion in 2004–05.

In 2010, one in seven (15%) Australians aged 14 years or over were daily smokers, and one in four (24%) were ex-smokers. More than half the population (59%) had never smoked. Daily smoking rates have fallen by more than a third over the past two decades, from 24% in 1991. This is largely due to lower rates of smoking among adults aged 24–44 years.

Close to four in five (78%) Australians aged 12 years or over had consumed alcohol over the previous year in 2010, including 46% who drank at least weekly. There was a significant decline in daily drinking between 2007 and 2010 (from 8.1% to 7.2% of the population aged 12 years or over).

Most people drank at levels that did not put them at risk of harm. However, 28% of males and 11% of females drank alcohol at levels that put them at risk of alcohol-related harm over their lifetime. In addition, 23% of males and 9% of females consumed alcohol in quantities that put them at risk of alcohol-related injury from a single drinking occasion at least weekly. An estimated 13.1% of people aged 14 years or older had driven a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol in 2010.

The consumption of alcohol was estimated to cost Australian society $15.3 billion, in 2004–05 (Collins & Lapsley 2008a). These costs included both tangible costs (such as for healthcare, road accidents and crime) and intangible costs, including for pain and suffering. The majority of social costs for alcohol (71%) were tangible costs. Businesses bore 50% of tangible costs and governments 26%, with individuals making up the balance.

Illicit drugs

In 2010, most Australians aged 14 years and over (60%) had never used an illicit drug. However, around 15% had used one or more illicit drugs in the past 12 months. Cannabis was the most common illicit drug used recently (10.3%) followed by ecstasy (3.0%) and amphetamines and cocaine (each used by 2.1% of people). Many people who used an illicit drug in 2010 also used other drugs, illicit or licit.

The social cost of illicit drug use in Australia was estimated at $8.2 billion in 2004–05, including costs associated with crime, lost productivity and healthcare. Illicit drug use accounted for 2.0% of Australia’s total burden of disease in 2003. Much of this was caused by hepatitis C, which can be contracted by risky injecting practices.

Around 8% of people in Australia aged 16–85 years have had a drug use disorder (including harmful use/abuse and/or dependence) in their lifetime.

Services related to drug use or treatment

Substance use – specific services

In 2009, 10,671 alcohol and other drug treatment agencies across Australia provided almost 150,000 episodes of service to people who were concerned about their own or someone else’s drug use. In almost half these cases (46%), alcohol was the principal drug of concern, with cannabis nominated in almost one-quarter (23%) of episodes. While the ranking of the top two principal drugs of concern has not changed, seeking treatment related to alcohol use has become increasingly common (from 38% of episodes in 2002–03 to 48% in 2009–10); correspondingly, there were relatively fewer treatment episodes for heroin use (10% in 2009–10 compared with 18% in 2002–03).

The most common form of treatment provided by these agencies was counselling to individuals, groups or families (the main treatment type in 42% of episodes in 2009–10), followed by withdrawal management (detoxification, 15%).

One treatment option for people who are dependent on opioid drugs is opioid substitute pharmacotherapy. Just over 46,000 people were receiving pharmacotherapy as at 30 June 2010: mostly methadone (69%).

While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can access mainstream treatment services, the Australian Government also funds a number of Indigenous substance use services. In 2009–10, the large majority of these (92%) provided programs specifically targeted at alcohol use. Other common substances/drugs for which services provided treatment or assistance included cannabis (77%), multiple drug use (54%) and tobacco/nicotine (52%).

Other services

There were 104,614 hospital separations reported with a drug-related principal diagnosis in 2009–10. More than half (58%) of these involved alcohol use.

Clients with mental or behavioural disorders due to the use of alcohol or other psychoactive drugs can receive treatment in a range of mental health-care settings. In 2007–08, 16% of overnight hospital separations to do with mental health involved a diagnosis related to the use of alcohol or other psychoactive drugs; the corresponding figure for same-day separations was 19%. In addition, these diagnoses were responsible for more than 171,000 community service contacts for mental healthcare (2.6% of all contacts in 2007–08).

In 2009–10, around 15% of the support services provided to people by homelessness services were related to the use of alcohol or other drugs.

Vulnerable groups

A number of groups within the population had relatively high rates of tobacco, alcohol and other drug use, putting them at increased risk of harm.

For example, in 2008 45% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years or over were daily smokers – more than twice the proportion of non-Indigenous Australians, after accounting for age differences. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were also more likely to have used an illicit drug recently (21% in 2008). However, eight in ten Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were non-drinkers or drank at levels that did not place them at risk. Furthermore, risk of long-term harm from alcohol consumption did not significantly differ from the non-Indigenous population.

Other vulnerable groups include:

  • people living in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged areas – who were twice as likely to smoke as people living in the most advantaged areas
  • people living in Remote and Very remote areas – were more likely than people living in Major cities to smoke, to drink alcohol at a level that puts them at risk of lifetime harm (as well as harm on a single occasion) at least weekly, and to have recently used illicit drugs other than cannabis
  • people who are unemployed – who were more likely than people who were employed to smoke or have recently used illicit drugs
  • people who identify as homosexual or bisexual – were twice as likely as people identifying as heterosexual to smoke or to have used cannabis or other illicit drugs in the past year, and more likely to consume alcohol at a level that puts them at risk of lifetime harm (as well as harm on a single occasion) at least weekly.

Drugs and crime

There were more than 85,000 arrests in 2009–10 for illicit drug offences; two-thirds involved cannabis. Most arrests (81%) were for use or possession rather than other drug-related offences such as manufacture or trafficking.

According to prison census statistics, one in ten sentenced prisoners in 2010 had an illicit drug offence recorded as their most serious offence – largely manufacturing or trafficking. Close to two-thirds of adults detained by police tested positive to illicit drugs in 2010; these drugs were most commonly cannabis (46% of males and 43% of females), followed by amphetamines (17% of males and 22% of females) and opiates (15% of males and 24% of females).

People entering prison (for any offence) had high rates of drug use compared with the general population. In 2010, three in four (74%) prison entrants smoked daily and two-thirds (66%) reported using illicit drugs in the past 12 months. In addition, 58% drank alcohol at levels that put them at risk of alcohol-related harm, although this was measured in a different way to the wider population statistics, making direct comparisons difficult.