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Misguided deregulation threatens WA public health legacy

As a wag once observed, the only way Western Australia (WA) will ever develop a European drinking culture is for WA to move to Europe. It might be flippant, but it’s true.

Simply introducing a greater number of small bars to Western Australia does not create a European drinking culture.

And that’s because drinking culture is a function of the totality of environmental factors, especially alcohol’s price, availability, and promotion.

Alcohol is no ordinary commodity, which is why for most of recent history governments have carefully regulated it.

If it were otherwise, why would we bother with regulation at all? Why wouldn’t we simply regulate bars, big or small, in the same way as coffee shops? That is lightly!

But alcohol is different and as Professor Allsop said in this newspaper, “there is no other reason for liquor licensing laws other than the public health considerations” (The West 15 February).

This is something that seems to have escaped the Premier in his relentless pursuit of weakening WA’s modest liquor laws.

The government’s recently announced plans are wrong-headed and fail to recognise that increasing alcohol’s availability will increase harm; irrespective of the populist tropes about vibrancy, tourism and cutting red-tape.

The consumption of alcohol has been found to be a risk factor in more than 200 health conditions, it is a clear and present risk in domestic violence and is responsible for more than 590 deaths in WA every year.

WA’s world-leading public health legacy is threatened by these proposed relaxations of controls on the sale of alcohol because it is a proven proposition: increase availability, increase harm.

And in every jurisdiction in Australia where alcohol’s availability has been increased, harm has increased, despite average consumption levels remaining stable and dramatic changes in patterns of drinking over the past 25 years.

Increased deaths, increased ambulance call outs, increased rates of alcohol-related domestic violence and increased numbers of hospitalisations – all attributable to the increased affordability and availability of alcohol.

It is not as though WA liquor regulators don’t know this. The Liquor Commission and the former Department of Racing Gaming and Liquor have worked diligently to tighten availability controls on the sale of alcohol in the state’s north (read Aboriginal communities) because it is understood this brings down rates of harm.

But it is inherent structural racism that the Premier proposes to make alcohol more available to white people living in Perth while imposing ever more restrictive policies in the north.

At a time when nationally, there has been intense scrutiny of the influence of vested interests on our governments, it is disappointing that another leader has fallen victim to alcohol industry payola. That governments so often see the embrace of drinking as the way to a happier and more prosperous society is alcohol industry marketing gold and has to change.

Sadly, these proposed changes to the law will likely sail through the parliament. There are too few, especially among the political class, prepared to guard against populist policies.

Nor is it likely the government will independently evaluate these changes to the law and agree to put things right if they are found to add to the already too high a toll. They never do.

Equally unlikely is if this all goes horribly wrong that the government will apologise to West Australian taxpayers for the additional pressures on hospital emergency departments, delays in elective surgery, or additional burdens on the state’s police.

In the mid-2000s when I was the Director of the Office of Crime Prevention I cautiously supported Minister McGowan’s modernisation of WA’s alcohol laws in the hope that changing drinking environments might reduce rates crime even though the evidence suggested otherwise. It hasn’t worked and I should have known better.

The Premier and his minister need to be more skeptical about this issue, and seek to understand what is happening here.

Don’t bemoan rising pressures on budgets or sanctimoniously condemn the behaviour of drunks when your own actions are in large part responsible.

Recognise that more alcohol means more problems.

An edited version of this post was first published in the print edition of the West Australian on Tuesday 20 February 2018

Michael Thorn

Michael Thorn

Michael is the Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), and tweets from @MichaelTThorn.

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