Deflating a culture of alcoholism?

It is of concern to hear that new figures released by NSW Health suggest that there has been a 59% increase in alcohol-related emergency department cases in NSW from 2000 to 2007. Let’s be blunt; in today’s modern era of global financial upheaval, governments across the country can scarcely afford to continue to fund people’s alcohol-related stupidity. We are perhaps at the point now where some new measures need to be introduced to try and turn this concerning trend around. NSW Health Minister John Della Bosca has expressed a willingness in recent days to do just that, although the proposals he has floated as possibilities so far seem only to be targeting the advertising arm of the alcoholic beverage industry (e.g. the introduction of warning labels and a full or partial ban on alcohol advertising).

To be honest, I am not sure either of these measures in isolation will achieve anything near the desired result. If the campaign that has been waged on tobacco over the last decade by both the public sector and NGOs has taught us anything, it is that a co-ordinated campaign has the best chance of making long-term inroads. It is of course a difficult task for a government in any country to “crack down” on a national pastime that has gotten somewhat out of control. The liquor industry and powerful industry organisations like Clubs NSW and the Australian Hotels Association would no doubt fight any measure from the government that threatened to eat into alcohol sales. Unless a bipartisan approach to the issue was forged by Labor with the Coalition, there is also little doubt that the Liberal Party would seek to fight any measures that could conceivably damage the alcoholic beverage industry, citing their doctrine of individual choice and responsibility. A frighteningly stereotypical rag-tag mob of yobs, publicans and anti-regulation zealots would then almost certainly jump on the Liberal Party’s bandwagon, and the NSW Government would suddenly have a difficult fight on its hands given it’s extremely vulnerable political position at the present time.

What I would encourage the NSW Government to pursue is a long-term, multi-tiered strategy for reducing alcohol abuse in the state. Policy measures introduced to begin with should be relatively moderate, with pre-legislated increases in the rigor of measures if annual targets are not met on an ongoing basis. While limitations or outright bans on advertising in some sectors should be considered as part of this strategy, I think the government also needs to attack alcohol abuse from other avenues. Carefully conceived information campaigns (such as the Quit for Life campaign) and the more recent punitive negative advertising introduced by the Howard Government in relation to tobacco also clearly have a role to play. People across the country (and in particular young people) need to be reminded and understand that they will turn into blithering morons after a certain number of drinks, and that it’s not “cool” to be in that state, it’s actually pretty sad.

Despite the prevailing economic orthodoxy, it remains true that targeted increases to taxation can also be a powerful part of a co-ordinated government strategy. I think there are grounds, given these recent figures, to increase the amount of excise on alcoholic beverages in NSW, particularly if the excess funds gained are pumped straight into programs that seek to minimise alcohol abuse. Given the increasing scale of costs, private and public damage, injuries and death that alcohol abuse causes every year in this state, surely it is only fair to expect that alcohol consumers cover more of the public costs that their hobby generates when it is taken to excess?

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