Drink Tank

Alcohol in NSW- After the party

The political party is over. We have seen outrage about alcohol-related harms in Sydney, further outrage about lack of action, then eventually a program of action. The issue is off the front pages, at least for a while, so the government’s media crisis is over – but has one press conference solved the problem?

The government initially seemed over-influenced by the powerful alcohol lobby, and probably thought that media attention would be transient; then, to his credit, Premier O’Farrell finally realised that the community concerns were real – and that the public calls for action would not go away.

His announcements are a useful starting point, albeit focusing more on retribution than prevention; but they are indeed just a start. So where next? And who else has a role to play?

It will be important not to shout “failure” if Australia’s drinking culture does not change overnight. The problem is massive; there is still daily violence; teenagers are still drinking to get drunk. Changing cultures takes time (look at tobacco, which is still freely sold sixty years after clear evidence that it was lethal).

Tough talk around mandatory sentencing drew most attention, but will have less impact than other components of the package. The alcohol industry will probably try to undermine the  3 a.m. last drinks and 1.30 lockouts. Nonetheless, evidence from Newcastle shows that this approach can reduce immediate harms and pressures on police and hospitals.

The government must ensure effective enforcement, supported by good public transport. They should also consider extending these measures, along with a freeze on new licenses and limits on bottle shop hours, beyond central areas, other than in exceptional circumstances – and of course maintain a tough approach on drink-driving.

Public education is vital in reinforcing the rest of the program and generating cultural change. This needs much more than the initial Danny Green advertisement. Experience from tobacco, HIV/AIDS and road safety shows that tough media campaigns can have a real impact on both adults and young people – if they are carefully researched, well-run, sustained and adequately funded.

The NSW government should also consider the recent WA Liquor Control Act Review report which recommended a comprehensive approach including powers enabling the police to prevent sales to minors and legislation to curb alcohol promotion.

The onus for action, however, extends beyond State governments. Alcohol companies bear a heavy burden of responsibility – both producers (including those that develop, package and promote products for young people) and retailers.  Pubs and clubs should end their knee-jerk opposition to virtually anything that might reduce harm. But they are only part of the problem.

Massive chains – especially Woolworths and Coles/Wesfarmers are extending and promoting their booze barns aggressively, seemingly oblivious to community concerns. (Indeed, in submissions to government reviews they have argued, with stunning irresponsibility, that the industry’s interests should take legislative priority over the well-being of the community, and that it is good for children to be exposed to alcohol advertising.) Premier O’Farrell said to the industry, “You helped to create the problem, it’s about time you helped to undo the culture”. Sadly, we can be sure that the industry’s “help” will focus on opposing action that might be effective and proposing distraction measures that have no impact.

The Federal Government has a crucial role. Following Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s expressions of concern, they should act in four key areas.

First, they should reform our bizarre alcohol tax system (described by the Henry Review as “incoherent”), so that alcohol prices are rational, with stronger products costing more and an end to dirt-cheap alcohol.  Second, they should fund major national, sustained media campaigns (independent of alcohol industry input) alongside specific focus programs in areas including FASD and hidden harms of alcohol, such as domestic violence.

Third, they should act on overwhelming evidence and expert recommendations with legislation to curb alcohol marketing. Children are being massively exposed to alcohol advertising, from sports sponsorship to bus shelters to social media. Only the alcohol industry’s supporters or the exceptionally naïve and foolish would argue that the industry can be trusted with any form of self-regulation.

Fourth, there should be research-based warnings on alcohol products – not tobacco-style plain packaging, but conveying important information to complement education programs.

The NSW program should be carefully evaluated, focusing not only on political success in ending the media pressures, but also on cultural change and reducing alcohol harms in the community. Premier O’Farrell deserves credit for making a start. He will deserve even more credit if his program moves on to change the environment where, encouraged by ready access, youth-friendly products and alcohol promotion, so many young people drink to get drunk.

And he should not have to act in isolation. If we are to see lasting change across the nation, the Federal Government must come to the party.