Drink Tank

Vicious cycle will continue until price and availability is addressed

Alcohol consumption takes a huge toll on our community.  It has devastating effects on the health of individual drinkers, and also on the wellbeing and safety of their families, friends and local community.

The damage from alcohol is particularly confronting when it is visible on the streets of our major cities and towns.  This can prompt calls for governments to simply make it disappear.

But trying to hide the problem will not stop the harm from continuing.  A comprehensive strategy is needed that includes targeted health responses for those with drinking problems and other issues, as well government policies and regulations that address the causes of risky drinking and therefore prevent the problems in the first place.

There’s no doubt that coming up with a response to the complex alcohol and drug issues in the Northern Territory is a challenge, but is locking up all the drunks the best option?

The NT government’s new Alcohol Mandatory Treatment system will give police new powers to take people off the streets and send them to a health facility if they’re found to be intoxicated three times in a couple of months.  It’s a $100 million gamble that’s never been proven to work elsewhere.

Whether the mandatory treatment will have lasting effects will depend a lot on the environment to which individuals return to after their stay within the health facility.  Arriving back in their community where alcohol remains cheap and plentiful will see many relapse into drinking, until they are locked up again, and the vicious cycle continues.

Public drunkenness can be shocking and distressing, but it is just one of the many side-effects of an alcohol culture which is driven by excesses of cheap and accessible grog.  So, surely its time to tackle the causes of the problems – the price and availability of alcohol.

Controlling the supply of alcohol, by limiting the trading days and hours of liquor outlets across an entire city or jurisdiction, has been shown by international and Australian research to be effective in reducing alcohol problems.  Price matters too.  When the cost of alcohol goes up, alcohol problems decrease.

Australia urgently needs government action to stop alcohol being sold cheaper than water.  The simplest and most practical solutions are for the Territory government to introduce a minimum price for alcohol, and for the Federal government to replace the broken Wine Equalisation Tax with the sort of volumetric tax that already exists for beer and spirits.

The Northern Territory needs a comprehensive strategy aimed at reducing alcohol related harm and tackling the real causes, not just hiding the problem away.

Brian Vandenberg

Brian is the Executive Officer for the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol (NAAA) and Senior Policy Advisor on Alcohol at the Cancer Council Victoria. He has a background in policy, research and advocacy within public health field, with a focus on drug and alcohol issues, and has worked with a number of NGOs, statutory bodies, and all three levels of government.

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