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Alcohol policy reform – who will lead the way?

Alcohol policy reform – who will lead the way?

We can learn a lot from the results of the latest attitudes and behaviours alcohol poll. Australians have a complex relationship with alcohol. It is striking how clearly most Australians recognise the harms that alcohol causes. The majority know we have a huge problem.

I have seen first hand the terrible toll that alcohol can take on individuals and communities. Working as a doctor in Tennant Creek, I saw the terrible consequences of alcohol-fuelled domestic violence. In clinical practice I treated people whose life was cut short from alcohol dependence. When people in their forties are dying of liver failure, we know that we have a serious problem.

It’s no wonder that 76% of Australians recognise that we need to do more to combat the harms of alcohol. Many of them have been affected by alcohol-related violence themselves.

This result tells us two things. Firstly, the need for further action around alcohol is as urgent as ever. We already knew that the economic costs of alcohol are in excess of $30b a year; this is reinforced by the high public perception that the problem is so serious.
We should start right away with warning labels on bottles, for instance highlighting the risks of drinking while pregnant. It’s a simple measure that would cost nothing to implement.

It’s also time we had a rational policy on alcohol pricing. We should begin by immediately introducing a floor price with a view to taxing drinks based on their alcohol content rather than their value.

The other conclusion we can draw from these results is that there is strong public support for action. We know what to do to reduce the harms of alcohol, but the political will is lacking. I hope that this survey result helps spur the government into showing some leadership around this issue.

The poll shows that the public have little faith that the alcohol industry will take the necessary action. Yes, there is a role for industry in any reform process. We all need to work together, government, the public health community, and industry, to find creative and evidence-based ways to reduce the harm alcohol causes. But real reform will be as tough as it is important. It is not something that can be left to an industry timetable. The harms caused by alcohol abuse are borne by the entire community, in terms of health costs, crime, and the ensuing lost productivity. They do not show up on the balance sheets of brewers and distillers; there is no ledger that offsets the revenue of increased sales with the harm they cause to ordinary people.
The government must take the lead role in reform. They now know that there is a strong public mood for change. With more education – which the poll shows is sorely needed – this mandate for action will become even stronger.

Richard Di Natale

Dr Richard Di Natale is the leader of the Australian Greens. He was elected to the federal parliament in 2010 and is the Greens' first Victorian Senator. His portfolios include health, multiculturalism, youth, gambling and sport. Prior to entering parliament, Richard was a general practitioner and public health specialist. He worked in Aboriginal health in the Northern Territory, on HIV prevention in India and in the drug and alcohol sector. His key health priorities include preventative health, public dental care and responding to the health impacts of climate change.

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