Alcoholics australis and twinkle-toes Barry O’Farrell

Aided and abetted by the media, a maelstrom of public discontent has emerged in the last fortnight in response to the tragic Kings Cross killing of Daniel Christie. The furor has been so potent that even New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell has been forced to do something, this week announcing a “tough and comprehensive” package [PDF] of reforms targeting alcohol-fueled violence in the Sydney CBD. Parliament is to be recalled early next week to pass the package, and with Opposition Leader John Robertson offering broad (if qualified) support for the measures, it seems that inertia-stricken New South Wales is about to experience an extremely rare legislative phenomenon: reforms demanded by the public being magicked up by a government one week and becoming law the next. Evidence-based policy-making at its finest, of course.

The package of reforms already has some high profile critics who have exulted in sticking their heads above the politically correct parapet. The Australian Hotels Association has challenged the logistical sense in effectively locking up drinkers in pubs and clubs from 1:30AM and then throwing them all out together in a flood onto the streets at 3:00AM. There’s some vested interests there, yes, but also a pretty damn sensible point. Contrastingly, Labor’s John Robertson has decided to take Laura Norder out for a few drinks in arguing that the package is not tough enough and not comprehensive enough:

The Government’s announcement is one that I welcome and one that it’s pleasing that finally we’ve seen them act. But it is an announcement with loopholes. We have lockouts with loopholes, where small bars will be exempt from lockouts, backpacker bars will be exempt from lockouts, and hotels with bars will also be exempt from lockouts.

In other words, if you want to be drunk and anti-social and violent until all hours after the O’Farrell Government proposals have been passed, all you need to do is pick the right venue in the right inner Sydney precinct. Sure, you can agree or disagree with Robertson’s overall stance on the issue, but you can’t deny that he too has a point there.

News Limited’s David Penberthy has offered his usual “boofhead libertarianism” schtick in response. The shorter Penbo: don’t blame alcohol, blame the idiots who get violent after a few drinks: you and me are entitled to get pissed as much as we want so long as we don’t “coward punch” anyone. This is the kind of mentality I would ordinarily expect to find at the bar of an RSL after (yep) a few drinks, not splashed all over the HTML and news print produced by Australia’s largest media company. But then I remember that this is News Limited we are talking about, and that by definition, even companies touting cow manure have a target market.

There are some other problems with the package of reforms worth rattling through (have a look at Kimberley Ramplin’s no holds barred skewering here). As several high profile lawyers have argued, mandatory sentence regimes tie the hands of judges, increase the risk of unfair judgments being made, and have been shown not to significantly deter would-be perpetrators. Closing bottleshops at 10PM is hardly going to stop people who want alcohol from obtaining alcohol or stop people from “king hitting”, “coward punching” or otherwise attacking other people. The introduction of free buses running from Kings Cross to the CBD arguably risks drawing disparate groups of drunken punters together in a confined area, increasing the likelihood of conflict. The freeze on new liquor licenses for pubs and clubs simply blindly favours existing establishments over those that new entrepreneurs seek to start – and for what end, exactly?

Daniel Christie’s death was tragic and sadly, Barry O’Farrell’s response so far has been as well. This package is a knee-jerk “tough on crime” grab bag of nonsense measures designed to appease the media whilst completely avoiding the underlying problem. Let’s cut to the chase: Australia has some serious issues with alcohol. Alcohol consumption nationally might well have trended down in recent years, but this is not a short-term problem: we have had some serious issues with alcohol as a nation for decades. Australia is far from alone in having these issues, of course, but arguably we do stand alone in our stridency: drinking beer has been craftily transformed by local liquor marketeers into a bonafide patriotic act, to the extent that we even commemorate great feats of beer drinking (take a bow, David Boon and Bob Hawke). Not getting pissed? Unaustralian. Not impairing your decision-making on a night out? Unaustralian.

The World Health Organisation asserts that alcohol is directly responsible for 2.5 million deaths per year and is the world’s third largest risk factor for premature mortality, disability and loss of health. The cumulative effects associated with prolonged alcohol use according to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) include cardiovascular disease, cancer (particularly oral but also liver, colon and breast cancer), diabetes, obesity, and cirrhosis of the liver. The NHMRC also suggests alcohol is second only to tobacco as a preventable cause of drug-related death and hospitalisation in Australia. In truth, it is impossible to quantify the true impact of alcohol abuse but if you factor in its involvement in car accidents, domestic violence, broken families, stunted development, marriage breakdowns, gambling losses, the development of psychological disorders, and yes, the occasional “king hit” outside pubs, it starts to become pretty significant. In the last two decades, Australian governments have successfully made tobacco the bete noire vice of Australian society, to the point where smoking is on the brink of eradication. The near eradication of alcohol abuse if not use is surely a desirable goal from a society POV: do we have the foresight to legislate to make alcohol Australia’s bete noire vice for the next two decades?

Alcohol, to pickpocket Karl Marx, is modern Australia’s opiate of the masses. It is an opiate that the red-blooded Australian man, in particular, will be loathe to ever let governments attack, despite the widespread trauma its abuse can cause. Liberal Australians as one have marveled at the stupidity of Charlton Heston’s infamous stubbornness on gun laws, but that tenth schooner of beer? It will quite literally only be taken from our cold dead hands.

UPDATE: Michael Pascoe adds his own brutally scathing comments on O’Farrell’s reform package in the SMH.

The biggest, most destructive drinking game of all

There is a ubiquitous, wildly popular pink elephant in the room. The “bad news” about alcohol keeps rolling in, but boy oh boy, it’s a whole lot easier to ignore it. In November 2010, The Guardian reported the results of a study produced by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs and published in the Lancet. The study suggested that alcohol was “the most dangerous drug in the UK” by a fair margin, more holistically destructive than even heroin, cocaine and tobacco. Late last week, research conducted by the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Project (EPIC) was released, finding that some 13,000 cancers each year in the United Kingdom are likely traceable back to people’s drinking habits. As Sarah Boseley reports, even small or moderate levels of consumption (e.g. 2 daily drinks for men and 1 for women) appears to significantly increase the risk of cancer, particularly in the mouth, oesophagus, voicebox and pharynx.

Clearly, the prisms through which governments, societies and indeed individuals across the world view drugs are incredibly distorted. It’s not over-egging it to suggest that triple or quadruple standards are in play. In the red corner, we have dangerous, illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine which are almost universally considered globally to be “bad” drugs, with stiff legal penalties imposed for both possession and trafficking. About the length of a good jab away, we have cannabis: still an illegal substance in most jurisdictions, but broadly becoming acceptable for medicinal purposes, and widely viewed as a much less dangerous drug than so-called “Class A” drugs, as they are known in the UK.

Taking a few more drowsy steps across the ring, we have tobacco; once upon a time, a wildly popular, publicly accepted drug, but now suffering from pariah status. It’s widely accepted that prohibition is not a reasonable or workable solution, so instead governments across the world have sought to educate people about the dangers of smoking and to incrementally legislate tobacco towards the margins of society, through advertising bans, usage restrictions, and even, more recently, packaging controls. There is a general sense in the public that governments are doing the right thing in engaging in these sorts of “soft touch” draconian measures. Of course, when it comes down to it, smokers are effectively being instructed that they are only allowed to poison themselves and others in a strictly regulated environment according to certain conditions – which in a more straightforward world, wouldn’t pass the laugh test as a final solution to a public policy problem relating to a specific product. Let’s not even get started on government’s implied preference for smoking over euthansia.

In the blue corner, finally, we have alcohol: the widely available, gloriously advertised, practically unrestricted opiate of the masses. The short-term health implications of alcohol usage are negligible, but the long-term health implications and indeed the sociological implications are very slowly coming to be understood as disastrous. We have to assume, given its ubiquity, that alcohol touches many more people’s lives negatively than either heroin or cocaine. It’s the questions that we don’t really know the answers to, or don’t really care to know the answers to, that provide the kicker. What proportion of assaults, domestic violence cases, thefts, killings, rapes and car accidents have alcohol abuse at their root? What is the annual cost to the health sector of treating patients who have suffered one of the wrongs mentioned, developed liver disease, or indeed a form of alcohol-related cancer? How can we ever hope to measure or quantify the distress and pain caused by people (particularly in struggling socio-economic areas) who abuse alcohol and make decisions that emotionally or physically damage their friends, families, and communities?

I am sure that in the heyday of tobacco, during the middle of the twentieth century, the idea that one of the world’s favourite substances would eventually be unmasked as a “bad drug” would have been laughed off by many. It’s hard not to wonder what the next fifty or sixty years will bring for the alcohol industry, given the pressures being applied to governments across the world to be “tough on crime” whilst also reducing public spending, impacting areas of public policy like health and policing. These pressures directly collide with the enormous popularity of alcohol and its acceptance as an everyday recreational substance.

If the somewhat rapid stigmatisation of tobacco is any guide, today’s blockbuster alco-dollar ads and “drink, drink, drink … spew” popular culture could eventually recede into the annals of human history; just another of those crazy, stupid things that people did back in those days before they knew any better or society chided them into behaving differently.

No, (sadly) I’m not holding my breath either… er, drink?

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo

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?

The politics of tackling alcohol abuse

It’s probably fair to say that alcohol is both a social good and a social evil in modern society. On the positive side, a moderate intake of alcohol allows people to relax and disconnect from the stresses of their everyday lives. Although it varies from person to person and also depends on just how much you drink, there is a fairly broad consensus that drinking the “right” amount of alcohol is good for your physical health. On the flip side of the coin, alcohol use and abuse is broadly responsible for thousands of deaths each year. The negative influence that alcohol abuse has on society spans the spectrum of one’s imagination; from causing motoring accidents, through to physical assault and rape, poor financial decision-making, degraded social responsibility, and long-term illness such as coronary disease. When one considers in full the many and varied ills that alcohol abuse brings to the table, it is hard not to compare and contrast the vehemently strong anti-smoking sentiment that is palpable in modern Western societies to the fairly lackadaisical gaze with which we view alcohol abuse. It’s okay to be a raging drunk, but don’t you dare smoke!

Of late, there have been some soft murmurings around the traps that perhaps this broad public tolerance of alcohol abuse might be slowly coming to a close. In Australia, Kevin Rudd has recently announced a new advertising campaign targeting binge drinking, which is welcome, but of course, is not going to be enough in itself to make deep inroads into the problem. Over here in the UK, in handing down his first Budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling has put his neck out with a slightly more practical measure and one that seems unthinkable in the political climate back home; a tax hike on alcohol:

British finance minister Alistair Darling announced on Wednesday that alcohol duty will increase by 6 percent above the inflation rate with hefty rises in beer, wine and spirits coming in at midnight on Sunday.

In his first budget, Darling told parliament that beer will rise by 4 pence a pint, cider by 3p a litre, wine by 14p a bottle and spirits by 55p a bottle, marking the first rise in duties on spirits in more than a decade.

The lift on the duties on spirits is by no means insubstantial, but one has to wonder whether these increases are really going to do anything other than increase the volume of funds flowing into the government’s coffers. An extra 4 pence on a pint of beer is not going to make anybody (particularly if they are drunk!) think twice about ordering another round. Nor is another extra 14 pence on a bottle of wine going to force the country’s chardonnay socialists and blue-bloods call it a night after the first bottle or two. You could buy seven bottles of wine before noticing that you’ve even spent a pound more than usual, which is more than enough to send most people into cloud cuckoo land.

Clearly governments have it tough politically when tackling issues related to alcohol abuse, but making inroads on this issue is a worthy endeavour for any government in today’s belligerently hedonistic world. Practical measures like tax increases might be the right path to take if implemented sensibly, in a way that people can understand and comprehend. A hardline education campaign reminding society just how much trauma is caused by well-meaning folks having too much to drink is probably just what the doctor ordered. Such a campaign has worked wonders over a period of several decades in relation to tobacco. The right campaign with strong backing from civil society can do the same for alcohol abuse.