La Trobe
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Subgroups of adults who drink alcohol at low‐risk levels: Diverse drinking patterns and demography

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Introduction: A significant minority of Australians drink within the 2009 national guidelines. Despite encouragement of low-risk drinking as opposed to consumption patterns associated with greater harm, little is known about the drinking patterns of this group. This paper identifies subgroups of low-risk drinkers and their distinguishable characteristics. Methods: Data were sourced from the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, specifically 8492 adults (18+) who consumed 1–730 Australian standard drinks (ASD; 10 g ethanol) in the past year, and never 5+ ASD on a single occasion. Cluster analysis enabled identification of subgroups from drinking variables. Drinking patterns, socio-demographic characteristics, drinking context and alcohol-related perceptions of subgroups were examined. Results: Three subgroups were identified. Special occasion drinkers (64.6%) drank low to moderate amounts very infrequently. Regular moderates (19.6%) and Regular sippers (15.8%) drank 5–6 days a week on average, with the average number of ASD per day 1.2 and 0.5, respectively. Special occasion drinkers tended to be younger than members of more regular drinking subgroups. Perceptions of regular alcohol use also differed between Special occasion drinkers and members of the other subgroups. Discussion: Alcohol consumption patterns among low-risk drinkers are not homogeneous. Younger drinkers who consume at low-risk levels are more likely to report infrequent consumption than moderate regular consumption. A better understanding of low-risk drinkers may help increase the prominence and acceptability of this type of drinking, challenge the normativity of heavier drinking norms and help target campaigns as new information emerges on health risks associated with low-level drinking.


The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare manage the data collection and dissemination of the National Drug Strategy Household Survey and we are grateful to them for facilitating access to the data via the Australian Data Archive. The data were accessed through a formal application submitted to the ADA (). The research underpinning this publication was undertaken by JM while completing a PhD at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. JM is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Stipend Scholarship and top-up Australian Rechabite Foundation Scholarship. SC is supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award (DE180100016). RR is supported from the core grant for the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, an independent, charitable organisation working to prevent the harmful use of alcohol in Australia ().


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Drug and Alcohol Review






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Rights Statement

This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Mugavin, J., MACLean, S., Room, R. and Callinan, S. (2020), Subgroups of adults who drink alcohol at low-risk levels: Diverse drinking patterns and demography. Drug Alcohol Rev., 39: 975-983, which has been published in final form at This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Use of Self-Archived Versions. This article may not be enhanced, enriched or otherwise transformed into a derivative work, without express permission from Wiley or by statutory rights under applicable legislation. Copyright notices must not be removed, obscured or modified. The article must be linked to Wiley’s version of record on Wiley Online Library and any embedding, framing or otherwise making available the article or pages thereof by third parties from platforms, services and websites other than Wiley Online Library must be prohibited.

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