Friday, November 9, 2007

Drinking to oblivion: why alcohol policy needs reform

As Australia's Peak national advocate for the alcohol and other drugs (AOD) sector, the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia (ADCA) is calling for significant reform and attention to the growing health care crises which are directly related to alcohol.

ADCA encourages all political parties, governments, industry and community leaders to acknowledge and understand the urgency of addressing the problems and economic/ social impacts on the community through alcohol misuse, excessive consumption, pricing and availability, accessibility and promotion.

Alcoholic beverages are deeply entrenched in Australian society, and there are substantial economic interests in their production and distribution. Alcoholic beverages also cause substantial health and social harm to the drinker and to others.

Three thousand people die annually in Australia and some 10 000 others need ongoing medical treatment through alcohol-related harm.

Furthermore, the annual cost in alcohol-related absenteeism is some 7.5 million working days, and economic impart of alcohol-misuse/abuse equates to $15.3 billion.

The World Health Organisation finds that alcohol is the third most important avoidable cause of death and disability in developed societies like Australia. Given this finding, alcohol is not an ordinary commodity, and should not be treated as one.

Public policies should aim to reduce the harms of drinking. Australian governments have led the world in doing so. This is evident through its approach to issues such as drink driving and reduced taxes on low-alcohol beer. Unfortunately, in other areas, Australian governments have lagged behind.

ADCA recommends there are four key priorities needing urgent attention to reduce alcohol-related problems in Australia.

Alcohol tax rates

Wine taxes need to be based on alcohol content and equalised with beer taxes per unit of alcohol. Cheap wine is taxed very lightly, and so cask wine is often the preferred drink of marginalised heavy drinkers. Wine should be taxed on the basis of alcohol content in the same way as regular beer.

Raising alcohol taxes across the board is also an effective method of reducing rates of alcohol-related problems. An increased price affects the drinking of heavy drinkers, at least proportionally to its effect on other drinkers. This means there is a greater effect in reducing the number of drinks consumed.

ADCA advocates for progressive increases in the tax rates over several years, beyond the adjustments to the current CPI. Revenue from increases in taxation should be earmarked to support increases in treatment services and prevention programs for alcohol problems.

Advertising & marketing

Alcohol advertising and promotion is currently self-regulated by industry bodies, rather than by governments. ADCA believes this is ineffective and does not accord with many community views on when and how alcohol advertising and marketing restrictions should be applied.

ADCA calls for a system of government regulation of advertising and promotion of alcoholic beverages which aims to reduce the health and social harm from alcoholic beverages.

Advertisements in any medium for alcoholic beverages should be required to include a series of warning messages about the potential harms of use - similar to what has been carried out within the tobacco industry.

ADCA strongly recommends that alcohol advertising and sponsorship of major sporting events needs to be reviewed to discourage excessive or binge drinking at these events.

Restriction of underage drinking

Underage drinking to intoxication is widespread in Australia. Sweetened, spirits-based Ready-to-Drinks (RTDs) are being widely promoted to the younger generation. As a result, RTDs have become a very substantial part of the under-age drinking market.

Binge drinking is on the increase with alcohol being responsible for the deaths of more young people under 35 than any other drug.

ADCA calls for a sustained campaign and the use of taxation policies by Australian governments to drive down rates of underage intoxication

Control of the market

The National Competition and Consumer Commission recognises that restrictions on the alcohol market are legitimate in the interest of public health.

Unfortunately, in practice liquor licensing controls in Australia appear to have been eroded. Why?

This is due to substantial increases in availability of alcohol in terms of number of licensed premises and their hours of sale, on the mistaken assumption that increased competition in alcohol sales has a positive outcome.

ADCA believes that local planning authorities should be disciplined to consider issues of outlet density and community amenity, setting limits on the number of alcohol outlets, and conditions of sale.

Excessive use of alcohol to celebrate major sporting events, such as this week's Melbourne Cup, sends the wrong message to the general community, particularly the younger generation, that you need alcohol to have a good time.

David Templeman is chief executive officer of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia (ADCA).


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