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Drug survey results show Australia needs an increase in early intervention and treatment services

June 2017

Today’s National Drug Strategy Household Survey results are confirmation that the nation’s drug and alcohol services require a significant expansion in the areas of early intervention and treatment to meet growing need, according to St Vincent’s Health Australia.

St Vincent’s – which is a major provider of alcohol and drug withdrawal and treatment services at its Sydney and Melbourne public hospitals – said while the survey results confirmed declines in alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use among younger people, significant increases of high risk drinking among older Australians, and no decline in overall illicit drug use, meant treatment services would continue to be placed under pressure.

“In some respects, today’s results are good news – for example, fewer young people are drinking hazardously – but they’re offset by signs of greater high-risk alcohol and drug use among other population groups, particularly older Australians,” said Associate Professor Nadine Ezard, Clinical Director, Alcohol and Drug Service, St Vincent's Hospital Sydney.

“Those regarded by the alcohol industry as ‘super-consumers’ – the 4 million Australians who consume three-quarters of all alcohol sold – are particularly at risk.

“Too few people are getting treatment, and too late. Every year that treatment is delayed means another year of accumulated harm. Australia needs a massive expansion in early intervention and specialist treatment places, as well as an attitude change to seeking treatment.

“Individuals and families should feel proud, not shamed, to seek help when they need it.

“Currently, fewer than half of those seeking alcohol and drug treatment in Australia are able to access appropriate treatment – that’s between 200,000-500,000 Australians who need treatment but don’t access it – with the largest unmet need among people with alcohol dependence.

“Recent investments in drug treatment and withdrawal services by federal and state governments have been welcome, but have to be considered as down-payments.

“We believe – knowing the demand that’s out there, and which has been illustrated by today’s household survey results – that all governments must more adequately fund drug and alcohol treatment services to meet demand.”

St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne’s Director of Addiction Medicine, Associate Professor Yvonne Bonomo, said the evidence for the effectiveness of drug and alcohol treatment services was well established.

“Treatment reduces consumption, improves health and wellbeing, reduces criminal activity and increases productivity. They’re also a good investment: every dollar spent returns $7 mainly in direct savings in health care and criminal justice costs.

“New investment should focus on areas of highest unmet demand and where evidence of effectiveness is strongest, including: early intervention services for alcohol treatment; gaps in specific service types, such as residential rehabilitation; and among population groups with high need, such as older people.

“The other take-away from today’s results is that we particularly need to reach older Australians – who are engaging in high risk drinking in larger numbers – with earlier and more effective messages around the importance of seeking help.

“There is an almost 20 year lag between someone developing an alcohol use disorder and first seeking treatment. The risky drinking we’re seeing among 50 and 60 year olds is likely based on patterns of behaviour that have developed over many years,” said Associate Professor Bonomo.