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Model behaviour: A systems approach to alcohol-related harm

Project title: Simulation modelling of alcohol consumption and the effectiveness of harm-reduction policies

Start date: April 2014
Estimated end date: July 2016

What is the issue?

Excessive alcohol consumption causes harm across society, from the effects of binge drinking, including alcohol poisoning, violence and road traffic accidents, to long-term high overall alcohol consumption which contributes to chronic health problems, including heart disease, cancer and stroke.

There are many ways to reduce excessive alcohol consumption, including increasing taxes on alcohol sales, restricting hours of sales, drink driving regulation, and education and social marketing.

However, alcohol-related harm is a complex problem, with many inter-related causes, so we need to explore what combination of interventions is likely to produce maximum community-wide impact.

How is the project addressing the issue?

The Prevention Centre is developing a simulation model of alcohol use in NSW that will be used to forecast the effectiveness of a variety of approaches to reducing alcohol-related harm, both individually and in combination. The model will address both binge drinking and high average consumption that leads to chronic disease.

Simulation modelling brings together a variety of evidence sources, such as research, expert knowledge, practice experience and data, to capture the complexity of a problem. That model is then used to simulate various policy scenarios to see which is likely to have the most effect.

The key steps of the project are to:

  1. Compile research on the causes of the problem and the intervention options.
  2. Bring together a small group of policy makers, researchers, practitioners and other to collaboratively build the model, drawing on research evidence, their expert knowledge and data.
  3. Test and validate the model.
  4. Examine the effectiveness of alternative policy options to inform policy design and facilitate broader consensus for action to address the problem.

What are the expected outcomes?

There are two main expected outcomes for this project:

  • It will collaboratively bring together many valuable sources of information in a systematic way to produce a practical tool that policy makers can use to guide their decisions on how best to address the complex problem of alcohol-related harms.
  • The process is expected to result in an enhanced appreciation of the value of modelling for informing policy and practice.

Updated March 2016

Project lead

Project team

Excessive alcohol consumption is a cause of chronic health problems and Prevention Centre partners have confirmed that alcohol policy is of interest.

The model being developed will explore which combinations of interventions will have the greatest impact for dollars spent when addressing both binge drinking and long-term high average alcohol consumption, informing policy decisions about alcohol-related harm.

  • Internationally recognised alcohol experts, and representation from NSW Ministry of Health (including Local Health District Directors, drug and alcohol directors, Centre for Population Health, Centre for Epidemiology and Evidence, from the Office of Preventive Health, NSW Treasury and clinicians were invited to participate in a group model building process.A series of workshops were conducted that has exposed participants to dynamic simulation modelling. We drew on their expert knowledge to map the problem in all its complexity, to direct us to relevant literature and data sources, and to help us quantify and verify the model (July – Dec).
  • The model is being finalised but will be able to explore the likely impact of a variety of individual, community and system-focused interventions on alcohol behaviours and health outcomes (including acute and chronic harms, ED presentations, hospitalisations, and mortality) on a NSW population.
  • A health economics component is being incorporated to explore the cost-effectiveness of different strategy options.






  • Atkinson J and Page A. Dynamic simulation modelling to inform strategic planning for prevention of alcohol-related harms and suicide. Intelligent Decision Support Systems in Healthcare symposium. 21 June 2016. Sydney
  • O’Donnell E. Dynamic simulation modelling: Supporting decisions to reduce alcohol-related harms in NSW.  Emerging Health Policy Research Conference. Menzies Centre for Health Policy. Sydney. July 2016.
  • Knowles D, Prodan A, McDonnell G, Atkinson A. Developing decision support tools in partnership with State Health Departments to inform prevention policy. AnyLogic Conference. 16 November 2016. Nashville, US.