Issue 27 / 25 July 2011

ALCOHOL abuse is the social scourge of our society. Visit any inner city hospital emergency department over the weekend — especially after midnight — and the chaos and carnage wrought by alcohol abuse is overwhelmingly obvious.

In his weekly column in the Daily Telegraph, Professor Gordian Fulde, director of emergency medicine at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, recently recounted a typical night: “At 6pm a 17-year-old boy was brought in semiconscious after drinking 10 schooners at a buck’s party. At 9pm the police brought in a 15-year-old girl who was so drunk she had been abusing both the police and paramedics.

“Then as the clock struck 10pm a flood of alcohol-soaked people in their teens and early 20s, mostly women, were brought in. One girl, a 16-year-old who had been drinking vodka and had taken ecstasy, was passing in and out of consciousness…”

And this is early in the evening …

Disturbingly, when the combined social and economic impact of the effects of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs is quantified it makes for sobering reading. The annual cost is said to be in excess of $55 billion. And this cost, which is ultimately borne by the community, is but the tip of the iceberg.

Early in her portfolio, the Federal Minister for Health Nicola Roxon recognised the devastation caused by these social cancers and in 2008 established a National Preventative Health Taskforce. This taskforce, chaired by Professor Rob Moodie, an internationally recognised leader in preventive health reform, was to make tobacco, alcohol and obesity top priorities.

To date the results have been mixed.

The preventive program on lowering tobacco consumption has been world-class. It has been relentless in targeting various facets of tobacco marketing, from pricing to advertising and packaging.

Consumers have been constantly confronted by compelling images of tobacco-induced illness and pathology, whether in orchestrated TV campaigns or on the package itself.

The opening salvo has now been fired in an alcohol prevention campaign, featuring “soft” warning messages on the labels of alcoholic products. Apart from re-running aspects of past campaigns, so gently chiding are the messages that they run the risk of being ruled irrelevant.

The three messages are “Kids and alcohol don’t mix”, “Is your drinking harming yourself or others?” and “It is safest not to drink while pregnant”.

It should come as no surprise that these truisms are the work of an alcohol industry-funded group — DrinkWise Australia. Industry self-regulation may be touted as the rational approach, but it is difficult to see how they address the intrinsic conflict of interest.

Also ironic is the fact that every high school student is assiduously bombarded with these very messages in all the relevant courses. They “know” this stuff.

They would probably be able to recite the equivalent alcoholic content of various standard drinks and the physiological consequences of binge drinking. And yet we only have to read Professor Fulde’s accounts of Saturday nights in his emergency department to realise that classes in school are not the answer.

What a let down! So far, attempts to reduce alcohol consumption have been, at best, disappointing. There has been no attempt to attack the iconic marriage of alcohol and sport in the Australian psyche. We still witness the full-throated roar of our national sports’ stadiums adorned by the logos of breweries. Oblivious to the irony, our sporting gladiators also sport various alcoholic logos.

Last week the MJA included an article on the impact of the “alcopops” tax on alcohol sales. That paper prompted calls for more action from health experts, as reported in MJA InSight.

Isn’t it time for the Health Minister to take on the booze barons and demand a relevant and genuine campaign against alcohol abuse ?

Isn’t it time for a champion to emerge from the profession and take on this David-and-Goliath task?

It does not require great insight. A sizeable increase in product pricing is bound to have a noticeable effect, as seen in the tobacco campaign precedent.

We need a bang, not a whimper.

Dr Martin Van Der Weyden is emeritus editor of the MJA.

Posted 25 July 2011

4 thoughts on “Martin Van Der Weyden: Time for a big bang

  1. Bruni Brewin says:

    I am beginning to feel that I should be in line for the skeptic of the year award. All of the above makes sense, yet again those that do not abuse the system of a glass or two of wine at dinner will suffer as well. When will it stop that one solution fits all?
    If our main problem (which seems to be the case) is weekend nights out, why can’t we put the onus on the venues to allow a person in, they can only purchase X-amount (deemed appropriate) of tickets for drinks at the door.
    There are a lot of alcoholics that don’t even hit the hospitals, and like gamblers it will be their families that will suffer as the amount of food at the table dwindles as their needs are too great to give drink away.
    Yes, it will cut down the drinking purchasing. But it will be the ‘responsible people’ who we disadvantage. Responsible people will say; “We can no longer afford to drink.” ‘Irresponsible people’ will continue to find a way to afford that drink.

  2. "Experienced G P" says:

    Young people today experience insecurity and rejection in record numbers. Jobs aren’t easy to find and an application followed by a rejection is hard to bear. Alcohol gives these disappointed young people a momentary escape from gloomy introspection and depression. Pubs are places which they can access without too much fuss and no one is likely to question their presence-they feel somehow accepted in these surroundings.
    Are there alternatives to socialising in pubs? Maybe, but joining a club involves another application or a religious or other commitment.
    The problem, like Mental Health, will get worse unless the plight of our unemployed, unhappy youth is faced and treated with understanding instead of contempt.

  3. Celine Aranjo says:

    This topic of alcohol and teenagers has taken on very serious adverse events, including clogging up EDs in hospitals.
    Many blame the teenagers, others blame it on their parents, yet others philosophise about joblessness, broken homes, and so on.
    Having grandchildren myself, all of whom want to do the right thing with regard to alcohol drinking, they satisfy themselves that they are legally of age to consume alcohol, hence they are not doing anything illegal, they do not drink to get drunk, so morally it is OK, they are socioeconomically able to purchase and consume alchohol, so they are OK. BUT has anyone ever made teenagers aware of the medical/health dangers of drinking alcohol in this ‘legal’ age of 18? Let aside the binge-drinking side of the picture? By this I mean not just the alcohol-fuelled violence, the trauma, the motor vehicle accidents, the deaths and disabilities, but the true effect of alcohol consumption by teenagers on their various bodily systems in not just the short term but also the long-term effects of alcholism; such effects that include their central nervous system, gastrointestinal system and other bodily systems.
    I fully support those who want to raise the legal age to 21 years, and I fully support the federal government in its initiative to make such information available to our teenagers, and I fully believe that our sensible and sensitive teenagers will respond favourably.

  4. Tony Krins says:

    It does not seem logical to blame the kids or the parents or the government or even the alcohol providers for our society’s alcohol problems, nor to “regulate” any of these when the cause of all our alcohol use and abuse is our “alcohol culture”. A culture that persists in promoting frequent “moderate” alcohol use when it is patently obvious that that “promotion” inevitably leads to a minority of adults and a majority of juveniles abusing alcohol in all places, in all countries, in all communities where this culture exists. We can only hope to improve the situation if and/or when we can persuade most people that the costs of any alcohol use are greater than the benefits and we move to a culture that suggests that life is actually smarter without alcohol, not by regulation, but by cultural persuasion.
    Nowadays it is “dumb” to smoke. I hope one day many people will think that it is dumb to use alcohol.
    (Meanwhile is the frequent imbibing and appreciation of wine a bit like admiring the emperor’s new clothes?)

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