Alcohol is the only drug epidemic we’ve got. Where’s the national taskforce on that?
Very true piece by Paul McDonald in the Guardian:
Alcohol has been recognised as Australia’s worst drug problem for more than 50 years by the Foundation of Alcohol Research and Education (Fare), and supported by Turning Point historical data. It has maintained the title despite successive waves of so-called drug epidemics involving marijuana, heroin, cocaine, speed and, most recently, ice.
Only alcohol is the true epidemic. No other drug has come close to causing as much death, illness, violence and lost productivity as alcohol. Yet it remains to some extent behind the lace curtains, almost a taboo subject, a blind spot in the national conversation.
However, we don’t see a national taskforce on alcohol, let alone a royal commission. It also appears to be off limits in the current tax debate to discuss increasing the tax on alcohol, even though such a measure is the closest thing to a win-win tax measure in any financial kitbag – more revenue, less harm, few real losers.
The announcement of a national taskforce on ice may be a good step. But if we compare impact and harms on communities, the ice “epidemic” is a mere minnow, affecting in the vicinity of 2% of the population compared to the related harm that is caused to the thousands around the nation on the wrong end of alcohol use. One in five Australians over 14 years of age drink at levels that place them at a lifetime risk of alcohol-related disease or injury. Tony Abbott could do more good by establishing a national summit, inquiry or royal commission on the harm caused by alcohol and ways to reduce it.
Our alcohol blindspot was further demonstrated recently by the attempt of the commercial television industry to show alcohol advertising in earlier timeslots, despite knowing that teenagers viewing alcohol ads have shown a 44% increased likelihood to drink beer by grade 8 and a 34% increased risk of consuming three or more drinks on one occasion.
Commercial television’s approach is reasonably typical of the country’s “why not?” approach to alcohol promotion, consumption and availability. We seem unable to join the dots between alcohol consumption and alcohol harm.
Alcohol-related harm costs more than $20bn per annum. At its worst, it pervades and destroys family life, it undermines our own sense of safety and security as we walk in the street and has wreaked havoc in our Indigenous communities.
Last year, 5,500 lives were lost as a result of drinking alcohol. That’s nearly five times more than the national road toll which creates daily headlines. Alcoholmisuse was the primary cause of over 150,000 admissions to hospitals in 2014.
In the family home, it can have an even more devastating effect. One in three female victims of domestic violence state their partner was drinking at the time of the assault. Alcohol even manages to make a casualty of those who do not even know what a drink is, with alcohol now sitting behind a third of substantiated child protection notifications nationally, affecting directly more than 12,600 children and leaving a further 1 million children affected by the drinking of an adult known to them.
This under-appreciation by governments of the harm alcohol does to Australian communities is one of the most perplexing and worrying parts of contemporary Australian life. We may like to consider ourselves a country that is a mature global citizen, but our acceptance and adoration of alcohol within our borders is anything but mature.
As a society, we reinforce a culture of camaraderie around getting drunk (Australian World Cup cricket celebrations come to mind) but don’t reflect in equivalent measure on the harms and regrets caused by such actions.
Without a national inquiry, there is little opportunity in Australian politics, or policy circles, to consider the merits of better managing alcohol in our communities.
We need to consider whether greater enforcement of the law on selling alcohol to intoxicated customers would save more lives and reduce the number of women assaulted. We need to consider whether greater restrictions on alcohol strength and quantity sold to young people would produce fewer fights at parties and fewer one-punch fatalities on our streets. We need to think about whether greater control and standards over advertising would result in lower levels of alcohol abuse. And we even need to consider if greater restrictions on donations by the alcohol industry to political parties would result in more politicians willing to recognise the tangible gains in community safety, health and law enforcement costs, and overall societal wellbeing if we put some of these polices to the test.
Individual politicians need to be strong-willed in this policy area because the powerful alcohol industry is a formidable lobbying group and close to the ear of government. Asking politicians currently if it is a good idea to restrict alcohol sales and advertising is like asking a turkey to vote for Christmas. But politicians need to be less beholden to the alcohol lobby if we are to achieve the benefits to community safety, health and government budget bottom lines of tighter control of alcohol.
There is evidence that the community is beginning to understand much better than politicians that alcohol is at the root of many of society’s worst problems, such as family violence and child abuse. At some point, it will become political suicide to ignore it. That day cannot come soon enough.