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Time for action on our two-tier problem

What do you do when there are so many hands on the wheel – and so many of their owners seem to be asleep?

The FARE Annual Alcohol Poll should puncture any complacency in government about alcohol.

With adults, as with young people, we have become a two-tier drinking society. Many people either don’t drink or drink sensibly – but those who drink are drinking more, and increasingly drinking to get drunk. We have a growing culture of drinking to get drunk in adults as well as kids – and that is very worrying news for the community as well as our health and police services.

It is quite extraordinary that 40% of drinkers (and 63% of Gen Y drinkers) are drinking to get drunk, and 23% hadn’t been able to stop drinking once they had started. It is also deeply disturbing that as many as 32% of us have been affected by alcohol-related violence.

So we know that massive numbers of Australians drink heavily and drink to get drunk. We know we have a problem. We know that there is strong support for many of the measures that are needed. We also know that action by governments is hopelessly inadequate.

The onus is now on governments to act. There aren’t any magic bullets, but we know a lot about what needs to be done – if governments have the courage to do it. This isn’t a culture that can be turned around overnight, but we have to make a start. If we have a binge drinking culture in adults, it’s hardly surprising that children see this as the way to go.

One of the many obstacles to action (apart from the heavy lobbying by alcohol interests) is that decisions on alcohol policy in Australia are made from a bewildering range of levels of government and agencies. Decisions on some key issues – such as price or advertising control – are made by the Federal Government; major decisions on access and liquor controls and enforcement rest with the states and territories; some issues, including warning information and public and school education are effectively shared – as is responsibility for funding treatment and services; and local government has important roles in areas such as planning approvals. At both federal and state government levels, responsibility for different aspects of alcohol rests with different ministers and departments, some supportive of action, some deeply protective of alcohol interests and promotion.

It is time for all governments to pay proper attention to alcohol, rather than lip-service.

We are entitled to seek whole-of-government approaches to a problem that causes so much harm, puts so many children at risk, and costs governments so much, through health, policing and other consequences. Failing that, we will have piecemeal approaches from some governments and agencies, often undercut by others.

The alcohol industry understands this very well. The companies may be fiercely competitive, but they unite in their approaches to government when they defend their massive promotion of alcohol to young people, or oppose tax increases or curbs on access to the product.

The FARE Annual Alcohol Poll is an important and compelling reminder of why we need to act. It is time for governments at all levels to send out a signal that alcohol is a genuine priority, and that they are willing to take the evidence-based action that can make a genuine impact.

*Artwork from the Australian Financial Review

Mike Daube

Mike Daube

Professor Mike Daube is the Director of the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth. Declaration of interest: Mike Daube does not drink and drive. He does, however, enjoy malt whisky (about which he knows quite a lot) and white wine (about which he knows very little, other than that anything cold usually tastes good).

4 comments

  • Reading the Poll question I wasn’t really able to respond there because although I believe alcohol is a problem and that more needs to be done to address alcohol harms, I’m not sure that I would say the majority of Australians would feel the same. Those who drink, even a small amount may not obviously share the same views that I do.

  • Are our governments really up to it? What is their problem with tackling some of these hard public issues when there is a surfeit of evidence about what to do? Is this a reflection of the prevailing political culture that only sees the world through the lens of reacting to community opinion and not one of progressive thinking and action? Mike’s blog clearly raises the political challenge for governments and oppositons for that matter.

  • outlined many prevention strategies that will require actions on the national, state, and local levels, such as enforcement of minimum legal drinking age laws, national media campaigns targeting youth and adults, increasing alcohol excise taxes, reducing youth exposure to alcohol advertising, and development of comprehensive community-based programs. These efforts will require continued research and evaluation to determine their success and to improve their effectiveness.

  • The Department has the policy lead across Government for young people and alcohol, aiming to reduce the levels of alcohol consumption and the harms of under-age drinking. The new drug strategy, launched on December 8 2010, sets out the Government’s approach to addressing the damage that drug and alcohol dependence causes on society. The strategy also outlines measures to prevent alcohol misuse amongst young people and to intervene early with those who need support.

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