A new draft plan for a national alcohol policy is alarmist and proposes ineffective remedies, says Fred Pawle.
Of all the campaigns by the health lobby to protect people from themselves, none ticks as many boxes as the campaign to reduce Australia’s alcohol consumption.
Alcohol causes various levels of domestic violence, illness, death, traffic accidents, street violence, work absenteeism, indigenous disadvantage, family breakdown and fetal damage during pregnancy. Restricting access to alcohol will therefore reduce its harm, says the health lobby.
This feel-good non sequitur is increasingly common in Australian policy debate. We at the MRC oppose it and all similarly counterproductive initiatives for two reasons: we believe that people are mostly capable of making sensible decisions regarding their own health; and government-imposed restrictions wind up punishing everyone, regardless of the wisdom of their decisions.
The Consultation Draft of the National Alcohol Strategy 2018-2026 - a blueprint for policy for the next decade - was released in December. It makes for disturbing reading, but not in the manner intended by its authors.
A quick scrutiny of some of its scary claims reveals the draft often relies on hyperbole. For example, the claim in the introduction that a quarter of Australians drink at least once a month to a level that puts them at risk of injury seems frightening until you dig into the source, The National Drug Strategy Household Survey, which declares the level above which “risk of injury” kicks in is five drinks.
It would be interesting to know - although impossible to calculate - how many times Australians have exceeded this level of consumption without falling off a bar stool or walking into a wall. It goes without saying that people who do drink to the point of blurry vision or impaired judgment should be cautious. They should also try to be accompanied by sober friends to help them avoid regrettable behaviour. Big brother, however, is not a substitute.
One of the draft’s proposed methods to reduce consumption is a “minimum price”, calculated by the number of drinks in a bottle. Currently consumers can buy bottled wine at Aldi or cask wine at bottle shops for about 40 cents per standard drink. The draft proposes raising this to $1.50. Any product already above that price need not be adjusted.
The subsequent increase in price will therefore affect the cheapest products the most. In other words, the policy will punish the poor, despite alcoholism being a society-wide issue.
Complex self-destructive behaviour is not solved by simplistic government-enforced pricing controls. Research shows that price has low elasticity among alcoholics. James Cook University researchers last year found sly grog being sold at 11 times its retail price in dry indigenous communities in Queensland.
There is little cause to expect anything but punitive wowserism coming from this draft, evidence of which is revealed at the end of the section titled “Purpose of a National Alcohol Strategy”.
“While acknowledging the relevance and responsibility of the alcohol industry and associated industries to contribute to the prevention and minimisation of alcohol-related harms, it is also acknowledged that they will not be eligible for membership of the Reference Group.”
The Reference Group, which is yet to be formed, will oversee the formulation of a policy to reduce “harmful alcoholic consumption” by 10 per cent by 2026, and develop an associated research agenda.
It is absurd that the businesses negatively affected by this, who between them directly represent the majority of Australians who enjoy alcohol responsibly, and will be forced to implement most of the group's recommendations, should be excluded from this decision-making proces.
A sceptical observer might conclude that this is just another example of the health lobby's natural tendency to tell other people how they should live.