Call for action on alcohol taxation

Posted on: January 30, 2018, by :

I wrote to your predecessor the Hon Julia Gillard in March, in part to congratulate her for calling on the Northern Territory and Queensland Governments to embark on decisive action to counter the ravages of alcohol. Unfortunately, we have not received an acknowledgment of our letter – let alone a response to issues we raised.

I stressed at the time that alcohol was a problem that extended far beyond A&TSI communities, as Ms Gillard had intimated in her Bridging the Gap address to Parliament; in her speech, she said that the ‘rivers of grog that wreaked such havoc among Indigenous communities were starting to flow once again’. The truth is that the rivers of grog are a much broader problem; in A&TSI communities, in bars, pubs and clubs across Australia, they’ve never stopped flowing.

The problem of public drunkenness is everywhere, not just in remote Australia, Darwin or Alice Springs, but in places like Kings Cross, Carlton and Hindley Street – in any town or city. The knock on effect – to the drinkers themselves through deaths, injuries and sickness, to their associates, to others, to police, paramedics and hospital staff – comes at huge cost to Australian society. Alcohol costs some $36 billion a year. Much of that expenditure goes toward countering the after-effects of alcohol abuse, paramedics and ambulance services, hospital emergency departments, sickness and disease both short and long-term.

You made the point in 2009 that we spend just two per cent of our health funding on prevention, and 70 per cent on acute care. Given the significant share of those funds swallowed up by treatment of alcohol problems, placing greater emphasis on preventive programs makes sense – rather than spending a fortune on picking up the pieces post disaster.

I stressed in my letter to Ms Gillard that, if the voices of public health experts and those who respond to alcohol-related deaths, violence and crime, weren’t enough, the ABC’s Four Corners program Punch Drunk should have been sufficient catalyst for Government action. The revelation that there are 70,000 violent alcohol-related incidents nationwide each year – a figure ADCA believes is very conservative – should be a call to arms.

The Government has available to it one of the strongest deterrents of all to alcohol abuse, the opportunity to reform alcohol taxation in line with ADCA’s long-held support for a floor price in conjunction with a volumetric taxation regime. Evidence from around the world shows that higher taxation leads to a drop in alcohol consumption and its attendant problems. Consider also the extra funds that would flow from such a regime – money that would go a long way toward easing the strain on our budget – and could be well used in much-needed public health programs. There is strong support for action on the issue, with recent polls showing that 75 per cent of Australians believe that we have a problem with alcohol abuse.

ADCA believes that governments at all levels have for too long been beholden to the alcohol industry. Alcohol is not a “societal problem” as an Australian Hotels Association representative attested on Four Corners. The industry continues to get away with alcohol being too cheap, too freely available, and promoted in all the wrong places.

This brings me to the issue of alcohol advertising and promotion. Your own Australian National Preventive Health Agency has investigated the issue, unearthing widespread concern over the irresponsible placement and content of advertising material – at sports venues, and via electronic, print and social media.

Earlier this year, a comprehensive report, Health First: an evidence-based alcohol strategy for the UK, recommended a complete ban on alcohol advertising and sponsorship, a minimum price per alcohol unit, the requirement for one-third of alcohol labels to be reserved for health warnings, and increased alcohol taxes. The Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK and one of the report’s proponents, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, was in Australia at the time and consulted widely with the health and wellbeing sector.

Were alcohol not a problem, why do so many inquiries and reports highlight the myriad aspects of its misuse, the relationship between alcohol abuse and mental illness, issues of child abuse and other domestic violence, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, binge drinking and young people, advertising and sports sponsorship?

Should your Government take up the challenge, the Labor Party would need to dissociate itself from funds raised through the alcohol industry, political donations from industry groups and other organisations with Labor affiliations. It would be up to Labor – as was the case with the Future Fund’s investments in tobacco – to say no. ADCA hopes that the Rudd Government is up to the task.

It would show true leadership were you to meet this community health crisis head-on as part of an election strategy. ADCA urges you to do so.

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