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Let's talk about Australia's drinking problem...

January 2014

Christmas and New Year is supposed to be a time of fun and festivities. But, hardly a month into this new year, the news headlines highlighted the tragic stories of alcohol-fuelled violence on our streets, amounting to one young man losing his life at just 18 years of age.

Last month, the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol (NAAA), which incorporates more than 75 organisations across the country including Cancer Council Victoria, released the first national scorecard for alcohol policy across Australia.

While a narrow pass-grade was awarded to a few, most jurisdictions failed to score above 50% on their alcohol policy scorecard.

Given these results, is it any wonder that alcohol-related violence and harm are at an all-time peak in this country?

Modern alcohol policy in Australia made a strong start in the 1970s with the advent of drink-driving laws and related awareness campaigns. But progress in other areas since then has been very modest, hard fought – and indeed, in some areas, we've gone backwards.

The cultural change that's occurred in relation to drink-driving hasn't been accompanied by broader alcohol policy reforms to promote public health and community safety. Successive governments have been reluctant to embrace health focussed pricing and taxation policies or to better regulate the physical availability of alcohol, despite the scientific evidence – from Australia and overseas – that consistently shows such measures reduce alcohol-related harm.

While Australians' drinking tastes have moved with the times – such as the shift from beer to wine over the past thirty years – our approach to alcohol policy has stagnated.

It's little wonder then that the National Alcohol Policy Scorecard reports that the leader among all jurisdictions, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), scored only 57%.

Hence, the recognition is bitter-sweet for the ACT Government-being ranked the best of a bad bunch, and getting the gong with a result that most school teachers would grade as a D-minus. In her humble acceptance speech, ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher acknowledged that "there is always more work to be done in this space to increase community health and safety".

Indeed, all jurisdictions can do a lot better on alcohol policy, but where should they start?

For some, the challenge is firstly to acknowledge that they have an alcohol problem in their backyard; and formally develop a whole-of-government strategic plan with the aim of preventing and reducing alcohol-related harm. Notably, in the two jurisdictions that ranked lowest on the National Alcohol Policy Scorecard, New South Wales and the Commonwealth, such plans are currently absent.

The inaugural winner of ‘the Fizzers' award for the lowest score was the Federal Government. The result highlights some clear opportunities to boost its efforts. It's critical that the Australian government acknowledges reducing alcohol-related harm as a priority. With lead responsibility for alcohol pricing and taxation, regulation of marketing, and national education programs the Federal Government can do more. A positive start would be to reverse its recent decision to defund the services delivered by the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia (ADCA).

The NSW Government also has an opportunity now to strengthen alcohol policy by acting on the recommendations of the review of the State's Liquor Act, released just before Christmas.

Immediate actions should include:

  • introducing a risk-based licensing system;
  • including outlet density considerations in new license applications; and
  • increasing community and local government involvement in licensing matters.

Results from the pilot year of the National Alcohol Policy Scorecard are sobering. While all jurisdictions have strengths to build on, all face the challenge of significant levels of alcohol-related harm in their communities and active opposition from parts of the alcohol industry to many of the key policy measures urgently needed. With plans underway to repeat the scorecard again in 2014, hopefully all jurisdictions will do their best to score better next time.

Results of the 2013 National Alcohol Policy Scorecard are available online from the NAAA at www.actiononalcohol.org.au.

Extracts of this blog first appeared on Drink Tank.

Alcohol Policy Scorecard

  1. Australian Capital Territory 57%
  2. Western Australia 53%
  3. Tasmania 50%
  4. Victoria 46%
  5. Northern Territory 41%
  6. Queensland 39%
  7. South Australia 33%
  8. New South Wales 31%
  9. Federal Government 29% (Fizzer Award)

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