A desolate picture: government-funded alcohol policy research

When it comes to coordinated alcohol policy research in Australia, the situation is pretty bleak. Unlike the United States, Australia has no national, government-funded Alcohol Policy Information System, nor any dedicated government funding for either alcohol policy research or small grants.

So, what Australian Government funding is available to support alcohol policy research?

Presenting at the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs (APSAD) Conference in Melbourne last month, I took a closer look.

I found that between 2004 and 2012, 85 projects relating to alcohol were funded by the Australian Government through grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Australian Research Council (ARC) and Australian National Preventive Health Agency (ANPHA). This represented approximately 0.01% of both NHMRC and ARC projects and funding during that time.

When looking at the 85 projects, ten themes emerged.

The majority of the 85 alcohol projects (n=48; 56.5%) focused on young people (n=22, 26%); treatment (n=14, 16.5%); and medical and biological issues (n=12, 14%).

I drilled down a little further to determine which of the alcohol projects focused specifically on alcohol policy – research that specifically examines actions or interventions that can reduce alcohol-related harms.

Effective alcohol policy includes strategies such as higher alcohol taxation; partial or complete bans on the advertising and promotion of alcohol; measures to reduce drink driving; and brief interventions by primary care physicians to reduce hazardous alcohol consumption (see: Babor, et al. Alcohol: no ordinary commodity – research and public policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2010).

While most of the alcohol research being undertaken in Australia does have policy implications, rarely does a research publication include a discussion about how the research findings could influence policy or practice.

Only 17 of the 85 alcohol projects (20%) focused directly on alcohol policy research. Three examined taxation, eight focused on advertising, sponsorship, promotion or labelling; three explored brief interventions and three studies examined existing government regulation and policy.

Clearly the Australian Government funds a range of alcohol research projects.

However, this analysis demonstrates that much needs to be done to ensure that the scarce alcohol research dollars are dedicated to projects in a coordinated way that included targeted alcohol policy research.

Current Australian Government-funded alcohol research occurs in the absence of both a national strategic research agenda and a current National Alcohol Strategy. An Australian strategic alcohol policy research agenda would help to ensure that alcohol research is targeted to directly inform public policy and practice.

Get more information about effective alcohol policy

View Katherine’s award winning APSAD presentation

By Katherine McLachlan

I have a legal practicing certificate, but am not a lawyer. I have a psych degree, but am not a psychologist. When my daughter was born, I wrote on her birth certificate that I was a criminologist. My low level drinking makes me a disappointment to my father and a boring potential HSMer.

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