Drink Tank

Restoring the balance: A new approach to alcohol

We’re yet to reach this stage during the current election campaign, but sometime over the next four weeks it’s likely we’ll hear our politicians talking about their policies to secure our borders to better detect and cut off the flow of illegal drugs. It’s a perennial election favourite, usually based around more resources for law enforcement and impressive new technology.

Illegal drugs are a serious problem in Australia. They are a worthy subject of debate.

But ask any medical professional whether illegal drugs or alcohol do the greatest damage and they’ll answer ‘alcohol’ every time.

So why don’t our politicians talk about reducing alcohol harm during election campaigns?

Recently, St Vincent’s called on the Coalition, Labor and Greens to get serious about the damage caused by alcohol in Australia and commit themselves to reducing alcohol-related harm and violence by 20 per cent by 2025.

We launched a roadmap, Restoring the balance, for reform covering the pricing, promotion and availability of alcohol which we believe will deliver on this target if picked up by whoever’s in charge after 2 July.

I recognise the majority of Australians can enjoy alcohol responsibly.

But somewhere we’ve lost the balance in the way our society interacts with alcohol and we need to bring it back.

If you want evidence, look no further than the 15 Australians who die alcohol-related deaths every day, or the 430 who are hospitalised, making alcohol second only to tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death and hospitalisation.

The alcohol industry reminds us that overall alcohol consumption in Australia is at a 50 year low.

But it’s equally true that alcohol-related harms in Australia are on the increase.

One in 12 of every emergency department presentation is now alcohol-related.

How is that possible?

It’s because there’s a core group – almost 4 million of us – who are quite literally ‘drinking for Australia’.

These drinkers, who the alcohol industry calls ‘super consumers’ and who represent only 20 per cent of all Australians aged 14 and over, account for almost three-quarters of all alcohol consumed nationally every year.

That’s extraordinary.

These are the drinkers turning up at our emergency departments with alcohol-related harms in increasing amounts.

And yet despite this, you never hear our politicians – come election time – raising what they will do to combat what is an unravelling public health issue.

They could start by breaking the shameful link between alcohol advertising and sport.

Anyone who watched last week’s State of Origin league game – the alcohol brands emblazoned on the player’s jerseys, the logos on the field and its perimeter, the constant advertising assault – knows things are out of hand.

There are now more than 3,500 alcohol ads on free-to-air broadcasts of AFL, rugby league and cricket each year.

And you wondered why it was so hard to watch the footy without you and your kids being bombarded with ads for beer and spirits?

International and national research has shown that exposure to repeat high-level alcohol promotion teaches pro-drinking attitudes and increases the likelihood of heavier drinking.

Ownership of alcohol-branded merchandise among non-drinking children and adolescents also predicts both early initiation to alcohol use and binge drinking.

We must end all alcohol advertising on free-to-air TV sporting broadcasts, as well as on government-owned infrastructure (such as buses, shelters, and sporting grounds).

The alcohol sponsorship of teams, clubs or sporting programs and the placement of alcohol brands, slogans or related images on any sporting merchandise must be phased out.

And an independent panel should monitor clear and consistent standards in relation to all forms of alcohol advertising and promotion – including online and social media – with penalties for significant breaches.

Alcohol advertising and branding in sport reinforces for kids that alcohol and sport go hand-in-hand, that you can’t have one without the other. And that’s wrong.

Kids should be able to watch their favourite team and players without having an association with alcohol drummed into them.

The alcohol industry targets sport because they know kids watch it and because unless new drinkers are recruited they are out of business.

No responsible national government can continue to turn a blind eye to alcohol’s deep, and growing, problems.

Just as people first laughed at the idea of cigarette plain packaging and seatbelts in cars, I believe governments will soon have no choice but to introduce measures similar to the ones St Vincent’s is proposing.

They can either be dragged kicking and screaming, or they can set the agenda themselves and start a national conversation about better managing alcohol’s negative aspects for the benefit of us all.

Toby Hall

Toby was appointed Group Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of St Vincent's Health Australia, Australia's second largest healthcare provider, in April 2014.

Prior to this, he was the CEO of Mission Australia, COO of World Vision Australia, and CEO of South Taranaki District Council. Toby is passionate about helping people "be the best they can be" and is a qualified accountant with an MBA. Toby has also held directorships of ASX listed Sterihealth, Working Links, and Goodstart, and has been a member of a number of government committees and advisory panels.


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