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Time to put the brakes on harmful booze consumption

By Mike Daube and Todd Harper, February 2015

The National Alliance for Action on Alcohol recently bestowed on the federal government the dubious honour of performing worst among all Australian governments in tackling alcohol problems with the "Fizzers" award.

In contrast, the trophy for best jurisdiction went to the ACT, and NSW was awarded "most improved". Notably, all governments struggled even to reach a pass mark.

International scientific evidence shows government policy interventions are the key levers to shift harmful drinking behaviour.  

Regardless of political colour, our governments are consistently falling short of taking effective steps to address the harms of alcohol and stem the tide of grief seen every day in our community.

Last summer, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Australians that as a father and citizen, he was appalled by the violent binge drinking culture that now seems so prevalent, especially at hot spots in our big cities.

In October last year at the AMA alcohol summit, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten similarly declared that for too long we have seen the terrible consequences of alcohol abuse across Australia. 

Our political leaders agree that we have a national alcohol problem. We know that some ministers and politicians from all parties understand the need for action. So why do governments fail to act?  The only conclusions one can reach are that lobbying from the alcohol industry trumps health, police and community concerns, and that ministers who want to act are trumped by political hardheads.

Despite continuing attempts by the alcohol industry to downplay the true extent of our harmful drinking culture, the most recent scientific research shows that alcohol kills 15 Australians every day and hospitalises a further 430.

Australians know that action is needed and support many measures that could help; but a recent poll found that three quarters of the population are concerned that the situation will not improve in the next five to 10 years.

In 2009, the National Alliance of Action on Alcohol was formed - it is now a coalition of some 75 health and community organisations from across Australia, seeking to work with our governments to reduce alcohol-related harm. 

While we recognise that there are no overnight solutions, and individual responsibility has an important role to play, international scientific evidence shows government policy interventions are the key levers to shift harmful drinking behaviour. 

The evidence shows that the most potent policy actions address the price of alcohol, the places where alcohol is available, and the promotion of alcohol, particularly to young people.  Governments therefore have a clear opportunity to deliver reforms that will reduce alcohol harms through taxation of alcohol in ways that discourage harmful drinking; sensible limits on the times and places alcohol is sold; and controls on advertising to protect kids from exposure to alcohol advertising, whether through billboards, social media or sports sponsorship.

History shows that governments are capable of good leadership in reducing alcohol harms. Our comprehensive approach to drink driving has achieved tremendous success in reducing alcohol-caused road injuries through a combination of legislative and policy reform, strict enforcement, and well-funded and sustained public education. This is a proven formula for changing the drinking culture in an Australian context and a guide for further action.

We have also seen leadership in NSW where the state government moved to tackle alcohol-fuelled street violence.  The government banned the sale of alcohol after 3am in Sydney bars and after 10pm from bottle shops state-wide. The evidence from overseas suggests that these reforms will have a positive impact in improving public safety.

As well as addressing the acute harms, there is also great scope for government leadership in improving community understanding of the harmful consequences of drinking over their lifetime, including liver disease, heart disease, cancers, and mental illness, as well as the clear evidence on the impact of alcohol on the developing brains of children and young people. That will come from increasing the resources available, not cutting education programs and scrapping key organisations.

The devastating consequences of family violence, where alcohol is frequently a major contributing factor, remain one of the greatest threats to the health and safety of women and children in Australia.  While the causes of family violence are multiple and complex, those affected deserve a determined commitment from government to address the role that alcohol plays. 

We will get nowhere if all we hear from governments is empty rhetoric and excuses for delays, and all they hear is lobbying from the alcohol industry.

Many politicians are undoubtedly sincere in their concerns about the harms of alcohol; but all too often those concerns are not translated into effective action. It's time for governments at all levels to work together and implement a proper national plan for action - led by the federal government - that places the interests of the community above those of the alcohol industry and reduces the harms from alcohol for drinkers and for those around them.

Professor Mike Daube, director of the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth, and Todd Harper, the chief executive of the Cancer Council Victoria, are the co-chairs of the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol

This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald

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