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Will Kevin Rudd take action on alcohol?

ADCA is writing to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd urging him to act on alcohol taxation, revisiting the issue that former PM Julia Gillard failed to address during her term.

This will follow up on letters sent in March to Ms Gillard and the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. These letters, which have gone unacknowledged, called on them to show some leadership in tackling the problems that alcohol presents our community. ADCA wrote along the same lines to the Treasurer in response to his call for budget submissions; again, there was no response. Mr Abbott will also receive a follow-up.

I reflect the frustration of many who have roles similar to mine, in that the drug that causes most harm to Australians appears exempt from action by governments at all levels. After such decisive action on tobacco, why is the same government loath to tackle the $36 billion annual cost of alcohol?

To revise the alcohol taxation regime as ADCA has suggested any number of times in the past would have helped Wayne Swan realise his desire for a budget surplus – with far greater certainty than relying on the vagaries of taxes on carbon emissions or mining production.

We pointed out to Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott that alcohol was not a problem confined to Australia’s rural and remote areas; it remains, we said, a national problem that requires national action. The way to achieve that is through taxation reform.

I fail to see why, when the government was so prepared to stand up to big tobacco, it goes to water in the face of big alcohol.

Mr Rudd had no qualms in his first term as Prime Minister in hitting alcopops hard for the perceived damage they were doing to young binge drinkers. It was he who observed that an inordinate proportion of the health budget went to treating the ills wreaked on society by the likes of alcohol. As such, ADCA believes he may be the catalyst for the Government to take on the alcohol barons.

ADCA is seriously concerned over the industry’s no-holds-barred approach to alcohol promotion via social media to an under-aged, impressionable audience. It sidesteps the requirement not to use advertising material that will appeal to young Australians by letting third parties do the work on its behalf.

A comparison between the industry’s voluntary regulator, the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) and that of the Advertising Alcohol Review Board (AARB), set up by the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth and the WA Cancer Council, illustrates the inherent weakness of the industry model. In its inaugural annual report, AARB received 200 complaints over alcohol advertising in 2012-13. ABAC, in its submission to the Australian National Preventive Health Agency’s issues paper on alcohol advertising, reported that it received 98 complaints in 2012, upholding complaints in only seven determinations.

It’s high time that governments acted on this cynical approach by an industry whose only intention is to sell as much alcohol as it can, flooding the retail market with special price deals, cosying up to big retail outlets, clubs, pubs and bars.

ADCA and other members of the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol (NAAA) were appalled at a forum in Canberra last month when the then Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler and the Coalition’s health spokesman Andrew Southcott refused to commit to exploring alcohol taxation or advertising reform. To make matters worse, Mr Southcott is a medical practitioner; how quickly one forgets the oaths of his profession in favour of political expediency.

The carte blanche extended to the industry goes beyond national governments. State and Territory jurisdictions studiously ignore their responsibilities by allowing far too many liquor licences to proliferate and ignoring research that shows a direct link between liquor outlets and alcohol-related violence.

In New South Wales, the O’Farrell government all but ignores the successful trial in Newcastle of shorter opening hours and lockouts; it brings extra police with sniffer dogs into Kings Cross, acting on the liquor industry’s claims that drugs are the problem.

In Queensland, the Newman administration clears the way for greater liquor industry freedom on the grounds that it’s better for the tourism and gambling industries.

And in the Northern Territory, the shameful CLP administration regards its mandatory rehabilitation legislation, which went through parliament last month, as “revolutionary”. This from a government that refuses to address the free availability of cheap alcohol, arguing instead that it needs to control public drunkenness before tackling the root cause. That it will lock up hundreds of people rather than trying to prevent them from self-harm. This government steadfastly ignores advice from its own police, health staff, a succession of Chief Justices and magistrates to address alcohol issues.

These issues all warrant attention. Hopefully Kevin Rudd can demonstrate the leadership that will be the the catalyst for action.

This article was first published in ADCA News, the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia’s in-house newsletter.

David Templeman

David Templeman

David is the Chief Executive of a national peak not-for-profit organisation in preventative health, the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia. He is a senior volunteer member of St John Ambulance Australia, the Chair of the ACT Alcohol and Drug Foundation—Karralika Programs. In addition to these activities, David holds appointments on the Boards of the International Federation of Non Government Organisations and the International Council on Alcohol and Addictions. David is also a member of the National Leadership Group for the White Ribbon Foundation and a Board Director for a recently established NGO, the National Rural Law and Justice Alliance. David was appointed to the Board of Families Australia in November 2012. David completed  a significant public service career in 2006 the last six as Director General of Emergency Management Australia, the Federal Government's agency with responsibility for reducing the impact of natural, technological and human-caused disaster impact on the Australian community and the region.

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