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ALCOHOL is part of a way of life in Australia. Most Australians would describe their drinking habits as “sensible” using a range of drinks from beer to wine and spirits to celebrate, relax and engage in conversation.
However, there is a downside to the changing way alcohol is being used in this country.
It seems that more and more Australians are drinking with the intention of deliberately getting drunk. Just three years ago about one third of Australians drank alcohol to get drunk. Last year this increased to 37 per cent and in 2017 44 per cent of people were specifically drinking to get drunk.
The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) released results of their annual survey recently around the changing attitudes of Australians to alcohol. For the eighth year in a row, the survey revealed these trends and many other disturbing statistics.
As FARE points out, this is not a small problem: “Alcohol harm in Australia is significant. More than 5500 lives are lost every year and more than 157,000 people are hospitalised making alcohol one of our nation’s greatest preventive health challenges”.
This year, for the first time, they also asked about family violence and alcohol use.
They are not on their own. The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, took a snapshot of alcohol-related presentations to Emergency Departments of more than 100 major hospitals. At 11pm on January 26 last year 15 per cent of all issues being dealt with in EDs were alcohol related. The huge profits made by alcohol companies is partially transferred to the general public as the taxpayers wear the costs of emergency and other alcohol issues and treatments.
The alcohol industry fights attempts to regulate. The “Keep Canberra Open” and the “Keep Sydney Open” campaigns are an example. In the meantime, the harm grows and taxpayers subsidise alcohol industry profits.
Emergency physician, Associate Prof Diana Egerton-Warburton, pointed out, for example, that “for every additional late trading hour, there’s a 20 per cent increase in serious assaults and injuries”.
She was supported by Canberra Hospital physician and ANU academic, Prof Drew Richardson, the survey’s lead researcher who stated: “We need a profound societal shift in our attitude to alcohol consumption and not just on Australia Day. This is a massive public health problem and a major issue for the safety and effectiveness of our staff.”
Richardson is not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. FARE found 78 per cent of respondents indicated they believe Australia has a problem with excess drinking or alcohol abuse; 74 per cent believe alcohol-related problems in Australia will worsen or remain the same over the next five to 10 years, and 81 per cent believe that more needs to be done to reduce the harm caused by alcohol.
The industry has a different perspective and came out (taking a page from the tobacco companies’ books) with guns blazing. Fergus Taylor, executive director of peak industry body Alcohol Beverages Australia, attacked the Galaxy Research-run poll as a “dud”. He argued the poll is “all spin and no substance” and was scathing about findings on alcohol-related family violence.
The poll findings say that “92 per cent of Australians think that there is a link between alcohol and family and domestic violence, with 80 per cent of these Australians indicating that governments should be doing more to address the role alcohol plays in family and domestic violence” and “74 per cent of Australians believe that the alcohol industry should pay for reducing alcohol harm (up from 71 per cent in 2016)”.
In my time as a Member of the ACT Legislative Assembly I believed that regulatory restrictions around alcohol were not justified. It is one of the few positions that I now regret. I had extrapolated from southern Europe where it seemed that freely available alcohol caused little problem. However, extrapolating to the Australian context has not worked.
If there is to be a reduction in the level of harm associated with alcohol, what is now needed is for governments to resist industry tactics and use appropriate levers around pricing and taxation, availability and marketing (especially in sport).
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health. He is a co-chair of the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol.