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Call for action on alcohol taxation

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.…

Barry O’Farrell beholden to booze barons

New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell’s latest stand in support of the alcohol industry makes him unfit to lead a government, according to David Templeman, CEO of the national peak body, the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia.

“Mr O’Farrell and his ministry continue to support the alcohol industry, regardless of the obscenities it perpetrates,” Mr Templeman said.

“The O’Farrell government’s decision to step away from a proposed ban on shopping docket alcohol discounts – yet another outlet for cheap alcohol – shows an appalling lack of judgement; it ignores evidence and the opinions of senior police, paramedics and hospital staff who are sick of cleaning up the damage drunken louts cause to themselves and to the wider community.

“Advocacy groups like ADCA and others in the health and wellbeing sector were prevented from commenting on a review of NSW liquor promotion guidelines; we were astonished that the government then let the liquor industry vet the new rules.

“This raises doubts that the review of the Liquor Act announced by Minister Souris will allow former OLGR Commissioner Michael Foggo to carry out this important task free of NSW government meddling,” Mr Templeman said.

According to ADCA, the O’Farrell government has muzzled senior police and officers from the liquor and gaming agency opposed to the free availability of cheap alcohol.

“But NSW Police assistant commissioner Mark Murdoch has spoken out; he blames the availability of cheap alcohol from bottle shops for violence both on the streets and in homes, an assertion backed by his peers in Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory,” Mr Templeman said.

“ADCA is tired of governments’ claims that they are attempting to cut back on alcohol and hospitality red tape, when the reality is that they are firmly in the industry’s pocket.

“Barry O’Farrell and his ministry ignore the pleas of families devastated by alcohol-related violence, opting instead to support the rapacious nature of the alcohol industry whose only aim is to sell as much of its product as possible – regardless of the cost to society.

“Despite an undertaking to fix longstanding problems with alcohol when they were in opposition, the Liberal Party in government has turned avoiding reality into an art form.

“ADCA has responded to three NSW government inquiries into drug and alcohol problems in the past 12 months – all couched in a way that studiously ignores the root cause.

“Mr O’Farrell and his henchmen are not fit to govern,” Mr Templeman said.…

ADCA writes to Treasurer Chris Bowen re tobacco and alcohol taxation

Dear Treasurer,

The Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia is concerned that the Federal Government is ignoring the cost of alcohol to society by zeroing in on smokers in an attempt to cut its budget deficit.

ADCA believes that the cost of alcohol and tobacco to the nation’s well-being warrant consideration of both in any taxation review. You would be aware of the well-documented adverse effects of alcohol on the nation’s health, which makes ADCA wonder why the government hasn’t singled out alcohol for special treatment.

For several years, ADCA has supported the introduction of a volumetric tax on alcohol. Most recently, I wrote to the Prime Minister a fortnight ago, urging him to review the existing alcohol taxation regime. Neither the Prime Minister, nor his predecessor nor the Leader of the Opposition have responded to that approach.

I understand the harm tobacco causes but feel that it is time governments acknowledged the $36 billion annual cost of alcohol to society; this figure is remarkably similar to that the Prime Minister used to justify the need for action on tobacco yesterday. We can’t ignore the simple premise that, as is the case with tobacco, we need to cut back on alcohol consumption by addressing issues of price, availability, promotion and advertising.

Several areas of the alcohol industry support volumetric taxation; brewing and distilled spirits interests favour scrapping the wine equalisation tax (WET) and the adoption of an industry-wide volumetric model.

ADCA’s concern lies in alcohol’s ubiquitous presence in all areas of society – most notably in the sporting arena. Your government obviously acknowledges that this needs to be addressed, with the Australian National Preventive Health Agency’s (ANPHA) Be the Influence campaign backing sporting codes to step away from alcohol sponsorship. This is part of the Australian Government’s National Binge Drinking Strategy and ADCA urges ongoing government support for the codes that have made the move.

Research worldwide shows that raising the price of alcohol drives down consumption. Reforming the alcohol taxation regime would thus be doubly attractive, reducing harm from alcohol abuse or misuse and providing government with extra resources to drive campaigns like Be the Influence. This and other programs are an investment in preventive health which would result in far greater savings through addressing the cause rather than treating the after-effects.

ADCA believes also that liquor industry promotion and marketing is far too hard sell, targeting young people who governments recognise shouldn’t even be drinking. ANPHA has addressed this issue.

The liquor industry has its own advertising and promotion code of conduct which has neither sanctions, nor is it mandatory – a laughable situation and one that government desperately needs to address.

Currently, we pour money into the consequences of alcohol misuse – disease, injury, illness – without seriously trying to stop the problem at the outset. Where’s the sense in that?

In 2009, the Prime Minister observed that the lion’s share of health spending goes toward curing our ills – rather than avoiding them in the first place. It wasn’t long after the Prime Minister’s observation that researchers published their findings on the cost effectiveness of a volumetric alcohol taxation system in Australia. Their estimates of potential revenue over a range of scenarios varied between nearly $500 million and $3.1 billion annually, with a net health gain of 21 000 disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) and potential cost offsets of $110 million a year. These are figures that can’t be ignored.

If the Rudd government is so concerned for Australians’ well-being, will it also review the alcohol taxation regime?

Yours sincerely

David Templeman
Chief Executive Officer…