Australia’s high-income drinkers

6 October 2022

Written by: Grace Tan

People with higher socioeconomic status have better control of their consumption, but they can still succumb to peer pressure if it means showing sophistication.

Media and pop culture imagery may lead us to believe that alcohol dependency principally affects lower socioeconomic status (SES) groups. This, however, largely overlooks statistics that show higher SES people to be among the nation’s top drinkers.

In fact, one 2020 analysis shows that high-income groups are consuming alcohol at riskier levels compared to lower-income individuals. But experts say that the lifestyles and privileges of those of higher SES backgrounds mean they are better protected from “problem” drinking and alcohol-related health issues even if they drank at much higher rates.

Regions with wealthy people such as Byron Bay, Cottesloe, and Peppermint Grove has some of the highest risky drinking rates in this country, but they also hold the highest rate of healthy diets and exercise practised.

Why is alcohol so popular in this social group? La Trobe University senior research fellow at the Centre Policy Research Dr Anne-Marie Laslett says that it can be for the simple fact they can afford to. But social factors also play a big role in their consumption.

“Many people drink because of social influences around them, and they [tend] to be more sociable. Others drink to cope or because they like the taste,” she tells upstart.

In Australia, alcohol arrived with European colonialists in the 1830s. It was treated as the currency of the colony and having control of it meant enormous political power. Drinking it was a symbol of sophistication.

This comes with social pressures too. University of Melbourne public health Professor Rob Moodie says this was like the notion of “shout” in the old days, where people, in turn, go around buying drinks for their entire group even if some are not drinkers. In the modern era, this is like binge drinking.

“The pressure on you to drink is strong, because ironically if you’re not drinking, you tend to threaten the people that are,” he tells upstart.

“Alcohol is still very supported in all strata in society.”

However, while people of higher SES may regularly drink, they do it in moderation. Prof Moodie describes this as “civilised drinking”.

“Civilised drinking” became the norm way back during World War One and the Great Depression. The uprise of the temperance movement by middle-class Christians was their way of moderating alcohol consumption to upgrade society and show a sense of class in Australians.

Studies show that higher-income people drink two to 3.5 drinks per day, which is considered moderate drinking and does not exceed Australia’s national health guidelines of four standard drinks (10g each) a day.

But in times of crisis, like the pandemic, we all feel the pressure, which can lead to leaning on unhealthy habits. Policy and research advisor at FARE Australia Daweena Motwany says that the pandemic gave people different motivations to drink, and the consequences of long lockdowns allowed them to drink for longer periods.

“People used more alcohol as a result of motives associated with negative feelings,” Motwany tells upstart. This is where the impact on mental health comes in from the use of alcohol.

“Many people [also] drank more as a result of an increase in opportunity to do so.”

Excessive drinking can put you at much higher risk of alcohol-related illnesses such as depression, anxiety, as well as heart disease and stroke. Studies show that upper-middle-class young adults’ chances of being diagnosed with an addiction to drugs or alcohol are two to three times higher on average.

People of higher SES have higher chances of facing health problems due to their opportunities of drinking more, but disadvantaged individuals are more likely to experience acute or chronic alcohol-related harms. An analysis also shows that 63.5 percent of drunk drivers earned between $12,000 – $35,000 per year, and 66.3 percent had completed Year 10 or less in education.

Higher SES groups may also have the privilege of access to support. “There may be access to services in higher income groups that is not available for lower-income groups, so that may worsen their drinking-related health problems,” Dr Laslett says.

It’s not all bad news, though. While many have increased their drinking, Motwany says 30 percent of Australians reduced their alcohol use for health reasons during the pandemic.

“A lot of people realised that they had to change their relationship with alcohol and adopt healthier practices to cope with the pandemic,” she says.

People of higher SES may drink moderately, but if they start drinking at risky levels, it becomes a concern.

“Encourage temporary but not permanent abstinence,” Prof Moodie says.

“But there are people trying to have a go without it.”


Article | Grace Loke Tze Tan is a second year Bachelor of Arts (Linguistics and Chinese Studies) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @grace_tze.

Photo | A Man in a suit drinking from a glass by Mart Production available HERE is used under Creative Commons licence. This image has not been modified.