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Alcohol: everyone else’s problem?

Alcohol: everyone else’s problem?

This year’s FARE poll results emphasise that alcohol retains a curious cultural place in our hearts as mostly socially acceptable – but when it becomes harmful, it’s someone elses’ issue to deal with.

What stands out for me is the unwillingness to own the problem. There is a real sense that it rests with the neighbours, that other suburb, big business or the pub up the road. Everyone in fact, except me and my social network.

What is also fascinating is the dissociation. Alcohol-related violence, road fatalities, health impacts and social dysfunction cost billions, but it tends to concern us less the more we consume.

Alcohol is already one of the most regulated products available for sale in Australia; government influences price, times and locations of availability even how it is mixed, who by and who to. It is a brave call to expect more regulation to further improve the situation.

Few wouldn’t support evidence-based interventions, particularly those with clear cost-benefit. But too often overzealous governments attempt all sorts of policies with high costs and dubious return.

From my portfolio work in regional and remote Australia, it is pretty clear alcohol has real impacts where workforce participation is lowest. For those concerned about road traffic accidents (82%), violence (76%), child abuse and neglect (68%), health problems (62%), harm to unborn babies (57%), and crime (52%), then head to our red centre and witness it in broad daylight. In regional and remote communities particularly, we have rampant unemployment, devastating health outcomes, family breakdown and social malaise being fuelled in large part by alcohol misuse.

There are few queues in small towns, but at 10am most days there will be a crowd trying to get into local public bars. Why can’t those same queues be people walking into a job? The origins of this problem lie with being soft on kids skipping school and failing to enforce participation requirements on “job seekers” on welfare. Is there any excuse in a modern world for the ultimate human rights violation of removing a child’s future by not taking them to school? And despite massive investments in training and job networks, we continue to pay people their welfare whether they front up for training or not.

A serious focus on addressing the social determinants which lead to higher alcohol and substance abuse is needed.

We need to reform the way we deal with our long-term unemployed by identifying a job first and then training them for it; quarantine payments to parents whose kids don’t go to school; and expand the use of community service orders with a training component as an alternative to suspended sentences or even custodial sentences for non-violent crime.

The impact of employment on individual health cannot be understated – the scientific data convincingly tells us that having a job is one of the most beneficial protective health measures available. Employment has a direct correlation with better mortality, social and emotional wellbeing, mental health, self-esteem and over-all quality of life.

It is easy to blame everyone else through the car window as we drive past, but as citizens we have created the conditions for alcohol misuse to flourish. So long as we don’t have clear positive social norms about going to school and gaining capability, then we create the perfect conditions for despondency.

Choosing the ‘do nothing’ option leaves the welfare system as it is. Our taxes will be increasingly devoted to perfecting our social support systems, with government employees pursuing the unfortunate with all sorts of services to within an inch of their doorstep and sometimes beyond.

Spurning the real economy is not illegal, but our nation’s increasingly stretched welfare system should never be the revenue model to fund it.

Raising awareness, changing attitudes and challenging our relaxed drinking culture may change behaviour over time, and things like health warning labels – which are only a matter of time away – will certainly work at the margins to those ends. It’s past time now that we consider whether areas that have identifiable alcohol related problems either have access to alcohol cut-off or severely restricted.

With many remote Indigenous townships now being dry, regional centres have become the new liquor frontier where the devastation is most catastrophic.

Of course workforce, training and welfare reforms alone won’t address our alcohol challenges, but it is difficult to see how massive demand- and damage-reduction programs can succeed without them.

Andrew Laming

Dr Andrew Laming graduated medicine (1990) and ophthalmology (2002) before transitioning to Federal Parliament in 2004. Other career highlights include remote and rural family medical practice in 1991, sports medicine in South Africa, a Diploma of Obstetrics in London, landmine clearing and ICRC war surgery in Afghanistan in 1992. He is Australia’s most innovative user of social media in politics and in 2010 was appointed the Coalition spokesperson for Indigenous Health and Regional Health Services and Eye health. He is a qualified personal trainer and enjoys triathlon.


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