A new report into the impact of alcohol-related harms on our community has found that alcohol kills four times as many Australians every year as those killed on our roads. Michael Thorn, Chief Executive, Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, outlines the findings of the new research and calls for urgent policy and legislative action to reduce the current rate of harms. He writes:

Alcohol kills.

Fifteen Australians every day, 5,554 Australians every year.

That’s four times the number of people killed on our roads each year, an unacceptable alcohol death toll that continues to climb.

Death, disease, illness and injury.  The report, Alcohol’s Burden of Disease in Australia, jointly funded by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education and VicHealth, reveals the devastating extent of alcohol’s impact. It’s the first such study in ten years, and the findings are disturbing.

If ever there were findings to up-end our national denial, to jolt us from our complacency, to inform and to warn about the dangers of alcohol and demonstrably show that Australia does indeed have a problem with alcohol, they are in this report.

In 2003, alcohol was responsible for 3,430 deaths per year. A decade on, that figure has ballooned by 61 per cent.

The study also found a significant increase in alcohol-attributable injury and disease.

Alcohol hospitalises 430 Australians every single day with 157,132 hospitalisations in 2010.

For men, injuries accounted for more than one in three (36%) alcohol-related deaths, while cancer and digestive diseases caused 25 and 16 per cent, respectively. For women, one in three alcohol-related deaths were due to heart disease (34%), followed by cancers (31%) and injuries (12%).

There’s no comfort here for the alcohol industry.

In fact, this report puts paid to the alcohol industry’s great lie; its attempts to repeatedly and predictably wave off concerns about alcohol harms; to suggest ‘there’s nothing to see here’ and point instead to Australia’s relatively stable per capita alcohol consumption.

Of course that’s a flawed and nonsensical argument. We wouldn’t ignore or attempt to defend a growing national road toll by simply arguing that there were fewer drivers on the road.

Of course, the alcohol industry would far prefer we looked the other way; that we ignored the growing crisis.

The alcohol industry, like the tobacco industry before it, has long shown itself unwilling to acknowledge the extent of the harms it causes, long been unwilling to accept responsibility for those harms and long been staunchly opposed to the introduction of effective measures that would reduce them.

It is far easier for the alcohol industry to market sex, popularity and glamour. Selling death and disease in a bottle is a more difficult challenge and one the alcohol industry has no thirst for. Witness, if you can find them, the alcohol industry’s own DrinkWise information labels, their introduction a self-serving balancing act designed to stave off the threat of a tougher mandatory labelling regime, while minimising any potential impact on sales.

Governments also cannot take any comfort from these findings.                      

Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments of all persuasions, past and present, have, with a few notable exceptions, by and large abrogated their responsibility for public health, deferred to industry, and in so doing, put commercial interests ahead of their constituents and communities.

A decade ago alcohol was responsible for 3,430 deaths per year. Now that figure stands at 5544. By comparison, our national road toll has fallen, from 1621 in 2003 to 1367 in 2010.

Governments cannot afford to wait another ten years to act. Nor can Australians, a majority of whom consistently voice support for measures to address alcohol harms, allow governments to ignore the problem.

Only decisive, evidence-based action will stem Australia’s worsening alcohol toll.

There are solutions at hand; population-wide measures that would address the price, promotion and availability of alcohol.

Alcohol tax reforms, the introduction of earlier closing times and sensible restrictions on alcohol advertising and promotions will not only save lives and reduce the unacceptable level of alcohol harms, it will also reduce the $36 billion dollar burden those harms represent, a burden carried by the entire Australian community.

Alcohol harms. Alcohol kills.

Alcohol’s burden of disease is an unacceptable burden, and our nation must not wait a further ten years to take decisive and effective action to reduce the rising toll.



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