About a quarter of people aged over 14 in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie are risky drinkers.
This represents the second highest rate of risky drinking among geographical areas in NSW. Sydney's eastern suburbs recorded the worst rate.
This was the conclusion of an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare household survey, which examines people's drug and alcohol use.
It found the Hunter Valley had less of a drinking problem than its urban neighbours, with only 18 per cent of people classed as risky drinkers.
In comparison, the national rate of risky drinking was found to be 17 per cent.
Risky drinking, in this instance, comprises those who drink more than two standard drinks a day on average.
This drinking level puts people "at risk of harm over their lifetime".
The survey is part of the national drug strategy, which sets a consistent and co-ordinated approach to dealing with drug use in Australia.
It is guided by the principle of harm minimisation and the reduction of demand and supply.
The survey found alcohol remained the "most commonly used drug in Australia, with about three quarters of Australians drinking alcohol in the past year".
About 21 per cent of people aged 14 and over in the Hunter New England and Central Coast primary health network admit to illicit drug use.
This represented a rise of almost 7 per cent in three years.
In NSW, this was second only to the North Coast, which recorded a 26 per cent rate of illicit drug use.
When broken down into smaller areas, the data shows Sydney's eastern suburbs recorded an illicit drug use rate of 31 per cent - the highest in NSW.
In this context, Newcastle and Lake Macquarie recorded an illicit drug use rate of 21 per cent and the Hunter Valley 16 per cent.
The survey found Western Sydney had the lowest rate of illicit drug use in the state at 9.5 per cent. Its risky drinking rate was also the lowest at 8 per cent.
The Hunter New England and Central Coast area recorded a high binge drinking rate.
That is, 32 per cent of people had more than four standard drinks on one occasion at least once a month. The national rate for this measure was 26 per cent.
Daily smokers fell in the Hunter New England and Central Coast area from 16 per cent to 13 per cent from 2016 to 2019.
In the Newcastle-Lake Macquarie area, daily smokers fell from 15 per cent to 10 per cent over this period.
The national smoking rate fell from 12 per cent to 11 per cent in three years.
"Smoking rates have more than halved since 1991 when almost one quarter of Australians were daily smokers," said Dr Gabrielle Phillips, an institute spokesperson.
In the Hunter New England and Central Coast area, about a quarter of people were considered moderate-risk drinkers [use that may be hazardous or harmful].
A further 9 per cent were considered high-risk drinkers [may indicate a substance dependence issue].
The survey found that cannabis was the most commonly used illicit drug in 2019, with 12 per cent of Australians using it in the past year.
This was followed by cocaine (4 per cent), ecstasy (3 per cent) and non-medical use of painkillers and opioids (3 per cent)
Use of cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy rose from 2016 to 2019.
Young people were less likely to smoke, drink and use illicit drugs than in 2001.
Cannabis and Pill Testing
In 2019, for the first time, more people said they supported the legalisation of cannabis than those who opposed it (41 per cent, compared with 37 per cent).
Almost three in five Australians supported potential drug users being able to "test their pills or other drugs at designated sites".
"There has also been a shift towards education, rather than law enforcement," the report said.
Asked where money should be spent on reducing illicit drug use, respondents allocated more funds to education than law enforcement for the first time in the survey's history.
There was, however, a decline in support for policies aimed at "reducing the problems associated with excessive alcohol use".
For example, support for reduced trading hours at pubs and clubs declined from 39 per cent in 2016 to 31 per cent in 2019.
The report noted that the "use and misuse" of legal and illegal drugs "imposes a heavy financial cost on the Australian community".
Tobacco smoking continued to cause "more ill health and premature death than alcohol and other drug use combined".
In 2015, it was estimated that 20,933 deaths in Australia were from tobacco, 6355 from alcohol and 2486 from illicit drugs.
The number of hospitalisations was considerably higher for smoking than for alcohol and other drugs.
University of Newcastle Professor Billie Bonevski said the rising rate of illicit drug use and the high rate of risky and binge alcohol use was concerning.
"Alcohol and other drug use increases the risk of a range of health and social problems," said Professor Bonevski, who is a health behaviour scientist.
"People who use alcohol and other drugs have much higher rates of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancers, and they may be more at risk of violence and crime."
New Australian alcohol guidelines released last December recommend healthy women and men drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than four on any one day to reduce their risk of health problems.
This was a change from the previous guidelines, released in 2009, which recommended no more than two standard drinks a day [up to 14 a week].
"It's a good idea to monitor how much you might be drinking and check that you can keep it under the new limits," Professor Bonevski said.
"At the moment, you can try Dry July to cut your drinking or use an online support program like Hello Sunday Morning. The less you drink, the lower your risk of alcohol-related harm."
Professor Bonevski said the fall in smoking rates over the last three years was "great to see, but we need to keep going".
"We have a national target smoking rate in Australia of under 10 per cent. We are very close to achieving that," she said.
Some groups of people find it harder to quit smoking than others.
"This includes people with alcohol and other drug-use problems, which compounds the risks to health from using more than one type of substance," she said.
"If you plan to quit smoking, get help. Support has been shown to help people not relapse back to smoking following a quit attempt."
During the pandemic, it was "more important than ever to get and stay healthy".
"If you are using alcohol, tobacco or other drugs to cope with stress or anxiety of COVID-19 related hardships, it's better to see a counsellor to help you manage the anxiety," she said.
Using substances "might just make the situation worse".
The National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline is on 1800 250 015.
Hunter New England Drug and Alcohol Clinical Services can be contacted on 1300 660 059.
Quitline is on 137 848 or talk to your GP about support options and stop smoking medicines that can help manage withdrawal symptoms.
The NSW Mental Health Line is on 1800 011 511.
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