Objectives: To examine the contribution of alcohol to drowning deaths in Australia.
Methods: Drowning deaths that occurred in Australia (excluding Queensland) from 1 July 2000 to 30 June 2001 were identified using the National Coroners Information System (NCIS). The current analysis was based on those deaths for which the Coronial process was completed by March 2003 ('Closed' cases). Comparison was made with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) national deaths data and with currently used values of attributable fractions for alcohol and drowning in Australia (these values are based on USA data on drownings from 1980 to 1984).
Results: 289 drowning deaths were identified, 5% less than comparable ABS data. Of these deaths, 240 were 'Closed' cases, and valid blood alcohol measurements were available for 137 (58%) of these. Alcohol appeared to contribute to approximately 19% of these fatal drowning incidents (25% for recreational aquatic activity; 16% for incidental falls into water; 12% for drowning due to suicide). Using > or = 0.10 g/100 ml as the cut-off, the estimated all-ages proportions of unintentional drowning attributed to alcohol was 17% in the current study, compared to the 34% currently used for Australia based on data from North America.
Conclusions and implications: A high level of alcohol appears to be present less frequently among recent drowning deaths in Australia than has been assumed to be the case to date. Nevertheless, many drowning victims have high levels of blood alcohol, and public health efforts to minimize the use of alcohol in association with activity on or near water should be continued. Despite some deficiencies, the NCIS appears to be a very useful source of information on public health issues, and to provide a better basis for assessing and monitoring alcohol-related drowning deaths in Australia than the published attributable fractions used to date.