A 7-point plan for tackling the grog toll; a memo for the NSW Premier; and the shop keeper who has taken a stand
It seems that George Souris, the NSW Minister for Tourism, Major Events, Hospitality and Racing, and Minister for the Arts, could do with something of a Ministerial briefing – from the health portfolio.
He is reported by the Sydney Morning Herald suggesting that a crackdown on hotels in response to violence in Kings Cross could “drive a lot of the industry underground”, leading to illegal alcohol sales and corruption.
He is quoted saying: “Because an underground alcohol industry also lends itself to more illegality – illegal gambling, drugs and alcohol is not a good combination to drive underground. And together with that comes all sorts of corruption, potentially.”
Perhaps someone should point out to the Minister that there is a difference between regulation and prohibition – and that regulation, for example in reducing the density of alcohol outlets, is one of the proven strategies for reducing alcohol-related harm.
Ministers with a brief for representing industry interests may not “get it”, but at least one Melbourne retailer has acknowledged the impact of the alcohol trade.
As The Age reports, a retailer from Footscray, Grant Miles, has stopped selling alcohol at his grocery stop because he saw that it was causing such damage to the community. He said: “I feel that in some small way I might have been contributing to problems of alcohol abuse in Footscray and the surrounding areas.”
His decision has been applauded, with some researchers noting the link between disadvantage and unhealthy environments: “What we know here is that bottle shops are concentrated in disadvantaged areas. In Melbourne, for example, packaged liquor outlets are four times more common in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods than in the least disadvantaged.” (Amy Pennay, a research fellow with the Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, quoted by the ABC.)
Jason Trethowan, CEO of the Barwon Medicare Local in the Geelong region, commenting on Twitter about The Age article on the Footscray retailer (as per below), suggests there could be incentives to reward such actions.
Meanwhile, as the NSW Government is clearly in need of some evidence-based public health advice, here is a memo for the Premier and his colleagues, from Associate Professor Anthony Shakeshaft, Deputy Director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.
Given the toll that alcohol takes on health and safety nationally, it may also be of interest to other state and territory governments.
TO: Premier Barry O’Farrell
FROM: Anthony Shakeshaft
The recent upsurge of public concern about violence and alcohol-related harm in Sydney gives your Government an opportunity to implement reforms that could save many lives and much suffering.
I recommend a seven-point plan.
1. Take an evidence-based approach
Tragic incidents, like the recent death of Thomas Kelly, inevitably produce knee-jerk reactions with the usual, predictable calls for more police, tougher punishments etc.
At times like this, it is important that political and community leaders look to the evidence-base about what has been proven to work to reduce alcohol-related harm.
2. Focus on availability
The more bottle shops, pubs and bars there are, and the longer they are open, then the more people will drink. For direct evidence, look at the Newcastle example: shutting pubs at 3am instead of 5am seems a small price to pay for a 37% reduction in assaults.
3. Ban advertising
Alcohol advertising is insidious, everywhere and essentially self-monitored. Compliance with the alcohol advertising code is not mandatory and it is difficult to monitor effectively because what does or does not comply is really a subjective judgement. The simpler solution is to follow the path of tobacco and just ban alcohol advertising and sponsorship.
4. Tax reform
The most efficient way to modify price is by taxing drinks based on their alcohol content.
The more expensive alcohol is the less we buy it, but we have also shown that when price goes up, our inclination is to drink on fewer days during the week to preserve our financial ability to binge drink on the weekend. So price alone is unlikely to reduce binge drinking significantly: that’s why restricting availability and banning advertising are also important.
We don’t have to drink a lot less to get a positive impact: the British clinical epidemiologist Geoffrey Rose estimated that if everybody drank just two standard drinks a week less, there would be about a 15% reduction in the number of high-risk drinkers.
5. Multi-pronged focus
There is no one solution. The drivers of excessive drinking are availability, advertising and price, and we need changes to all three together to make a lasting difference.
Increasing police numbers or zero tolerance policing are unlikely to be effective precisely because they do not impact on availability, advertising or price.
6. Put the community’s welfare first (not industry’s)
The choice for the community is fairly simple: reduce alcohol availability, ban alcohol advertising and increase its price, or continue to live with ongoing alcohol-related violence at its current rate or worse.
Any public health changes that make a difference are painful, slow and often resisted.
7. United front
Premier, I realise that you and your government alone cannot achieve all these necessary changes.
Implementing changes to availability, advertising and price to make a sustained difference requires all levels of government to work together because each level of government has a different jurisdiction. The Australian Government can most efficiently control advertising, price and standardise laws such as opening hours, while state and local governments can control planning and development.
We need a task force to determine how to most efficiently implement reforms to availability, advertising and price – not a review and not a scoping exercise, just a determination of how to implement what we know will work.
In view of the constraints on your time, I have kept this note short and sharp, but my colleagues and I would be happy to meet with you or your staff.
Associate Professor Anthony Shakeshaft, Deputy Director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales