Drink Tank

It’s time to redefine ‘the alcohol problem’

Last month I was in Darwin to speak at a Forum about alcohol.

As often occurs with discussions on alcohol policy throughout the country – the alcohol problems that were being discussed in Darwin centred on just one part of its drinking culture. In this instance it was the consumption of alcohol among the people in Darwin that are experiencing homelessness, who are also referred to as the ‘long grassers’.

While there’s no question that the ‘long grassers’ are one of the most visible parts of Darwin’s drinking culture and that targeted strategies are needed to better support these people – focusing solely on one part of the population, without acknowledging the broader environment in which alcohol is sold, made available and promoted will not result in meaningful reductions in alcohol-related harms.

When looking at the broader population – the data shows that people in the Northern Territory (NT) consume more than the average Australian per litre of pure alcohol – more than 13 litres of pure alcohol for each person aged over 15 years compared to the Australian average of 10 litres. The 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that almost 30 per cent of people in the NT consume more than two standard drinks each day, placing them at increased risk of long terms harms like chronic disease.

This level of drinking is not the result of just a few people’s drinking, but is a reflection of a broader culture of harmful drinking, and by narrowly defining ‘the alcohol problem’ as one that just focuses on the ‘long grassers’, not only do we ignore the broader culture of drinking – but this also leads to us developing the wrong solutions.

The ‘solution’ being proposed by the NT Government is mandatory alcohol and drug treatment and rehabilitation. Yesterday the NT Government released the Draft Bill for consultation. The Bill will be entered into parliament this week and debated on 27 June 2013. The timeframe for the community consultation is two weeks and the NT Government is already talking about the 1 July start date for the program.

The short timeframe for consultation and the discussion of a start date for the program gives me no confidence that the Government intends on listening to the responses it receives.

This NT Government’s ‘solution’ will result in people who have been found to be intoxicated three times in two months being detained for up to 72 hours, after which time they will face a tribunal and may be sentenced to three months of mandatory alcohol and drug treatment. Some of the detail revealed yesterday includes that:

  • ‘Reasonable force’ can be used to ‘restrain a person who is detained at an assessment facility’;
  • People who ‘intentionally absent’ themselves from the treatment centre will be committing an ‘offence’, with a maximum penalty of three months in prison; and
  • A ‘treatment provider may charge a person’ for ‘food, medication and other consumables’

It’s hard to see what the policy of mandatory treatment and rehabilitation is trying to do. This is a punitive measure that will further marginalise a group of the population that is already experiencing significant disadvantage, with the almost certain likelihood of doing more harm.

This is not only bad policy, but there is no evidence to support it and of greatest concern – it could lead to substantial harms, including further deaths in custody.

Only last year, there was a Coronial Inquest into the death of Terrence Briscoe at the Alice Springs police watch house. During the Inquest the Northern Territory Police Association (NTPA) provided a submission that asked that the death be used as a ‘trigger for meaningful change’. Included among the propositions made by the NTPA is that ‘A licence to distribute and sell alcohol is not in any sense a right, but a privilege which is revocable at will’ and ‘If sacrifices have to be made or measures taken, the national interest must come before self-interest’.

The NT Government needs to redefine ‘the alcohol problem’ as one that exists throughout the Territory so that the solutions are developed to target the broader population and drinking culture.

Only when this happens will we start to see the reductions in alcohol-related harms that are needed to reduce the significant toll that results from alcohol.

I just sincerely hope that people do not have to die at the hand of bad government policy before this occurs.

Caterina Giorgi

Caterina is the Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education.

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