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Victoria lacking leadership on alcohol harms

There was a time, when Victoria led the way on public health measures; a time when the State was not afraid to embrace bold measures to reduce harms and to save lives.

In 1970 Victoria was the first State to require vehicle occupants to wear seatbelts, with other States and Territories following our lead. Victoria introduced Random Breath Testing in 1976, six years ahead of NSW and a full 12 years before Queensland and West Australia. On tobacco control, Victoria has also led the way. The Victorian Tobacco Act, 1987 was a model for other jurisdictions both in Australia and abroad.

However, a damning report released last week chronicling alcohol harms in Victoria, suggests that Victoria’s leadership on important matters of public health has long since lapsed. The report, The state of play: alcohol in Victoria, produced by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) shows that alcohol harms in Victoria are extensive and continuing to rise.

As Chairman of the Foundation, and as a proud Victorian resident, I am deeply concerned by what is without question, an unacceptable and devastating toll.

Every single day in the State of Victoria, alcohol is responsible for three deaths, 18 assaults, 81 hospital admissions and 22 ambulance attendances. Alcohol kills 1,214 Victorians every year.

The financial and personal cost to individuals, families and communities, to Government and to individual tax payers is simply now too great to bear, and impossible to ignore.

Polling conducted by our Foundation earlier this year revealed that one in three Victorians have experienced alcohol-related violence, while over two thirds have experienced the negative effects of alcohol from others. It is no surprise then that 57 per cent of Victorians polled consider their cities or town centres unsafe.

This latest report is a further indictment on State Governments, past and present; the rising alcohol harms, the consequence of years of inaction.

Domestic violence incidents involving alcohol, totalling 14,015 per year at last count, have risen 85 per cent in ten years. Alcohol-related hospital admissions are up 53 per cent to 29,694 per year and alcohol-related ambulance attendances up 146 per cent to 8,349 per year.

There is one faint echo of Victoria’s earlier successes, an echo of a braver, bolder Victoria, a State that was once prepared to take meaningful action to reduce an unacceptable toll.

That notable exception is alcohol-related serious or fatal road injuries which are down 36 per cent from 3,031 in 2001-02 to 1,932 in 2010-11.

It is not hard to understand why road safety initiatives are successful. Successive Governments continue to see fit to support strong government regulation and public education, together with strong enforcement measures.

By contrast, when it comes to alcohol harms more generally, the State Government is missing in action.

It is no exaggeration to say that Victoria’s once proud public health crown hasn’t merely slipped, but fallen off completely, especially when it comes to alcohol control.

Instead, today Victoria wears a different crown; our State has the dubious distinction of being the liquor outlet king of the nation, with a total of 19,978 active liquor licences. That’s twice as many licences as Queensland per head of population aged over 18 years, and 161% more than NSW.

That’s troubling because we know that it is the increasing number of alcohol outlets in Victoria, together with alcohol’s increasing affordability that is driving the high level of alcohol harm in the State.

Measures such as a 10pm close for packaged liquor outlets and 3am last drinks in licensed venues would have an immediate impact, reducing alcohol harms.

All this begs the question. In the face of such indisputable evidence of the harms from alcohol, and confronted with such compelling evidence of what works and what doesn’t, why won’t our elected representatives act?

On alcohol harms our Government isn’t merely flat footed, but, in its recent focus on crystal methamphetamines, I fear the government isn’t even looking in the right direction.

Data on the prevalence of drug use, hospitalisations and ambulance attendances in Victoria reveal the harms from alcohol to be of a far greater magnitude. While alcohol was responsible for 29,694 hospitalisations in 2010-11, stimulants (including ice) accounted for only 638 admissions.

Notwithstanding the seriousness of the harms from ice and the need for decisive action, the statistical evidence makes clear that it is the harms from alcohol that represent the State’s true epidemic.

There are good reasons however to be optimistic.

The report into Victoria alcohol harms comes at an opportune time, with the Victorian election drawing near, and pundits predicting a close election result.

Alcohol harms are increasing, not because there is no solution to the problem, but rather because of a lack of will and courage on the part of both major parties to address the problem in a meaningful way.

Before we cast our votes in November, we deserve to know whether the Government or Opposition are prepared to embrace strong evidence-based measures that would reduce alcohol harms and save lives.

We deserve to know whether the Government or Opposition are prepared to demonstrate that they are not held captive to the powerful and vested interests of the dominant alcohol industry, but instead, are answerable to the people of Victoria?

It is time for strong leadership on alcohol harms, and time for Victoria to reclaim its public health crown.

This story first appeared in the Herald Sun as ‘We’ve lost our way in fight against alcohol abuse’ on Sunday 14 September 2014.

Andrew Fairley

Andrew Fairley

Andrew Fairley AM is chairman of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE). He practices as an equity lawyer with Hall & Wilcox Solicitors in Melbourne and is recognised as one of Australia’s leading superannuation lawyers.

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