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Calling time on a toxic booze culture

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At this time every year, the nation becomes obsessed – however fleetingly – with horses and horse racing.

In homes and workplaces across the nation, people embrace the chance to come together and revel in the theatre surrounding the Melbourne Cup and the Spring Racing Carnival.

But, alongside glamorous pictures of sleek racehorses are the images of people swilling alcohol to the point of inebriation and passed out on the ground, staggering down the street or, all too often, ending up in a fight.

It says something not very flattering about our culture that having a good time seems almost inevitably to involve drinking and, for many, drinking to excess.

This has been a habit formed and reinforced across generations, and alcohol companies have been extraordinarily adept at making sure it is a link that is not broken.

Have a look at any major sporting event and it is bound to be infused with alcohol – from the drinks of fans in the stands to the logos emblazoned on jerseys and billboards to the ads that fill up broadcast time and the champagne showered by the winners atop the podium.

The none-too-subtle message is clear – drinking is part of sport, and to drink is to be a winner.

I am not against drinking per se.

Like most, I enjoy a drink.

But many people are drinking to the point that it is hurting their health and harming those around them.

A Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education poll released early this year found that almost a quarter of drinkers drank at least three times a week, one in six drinkers consumed more than six standard drinks in a typical session, around 25 per cent felt unable to stop drinking once they started, and more than a third said they drank to get drunk.

There is some evidence that per capita consumption is slowing, but Australians remain heavy drinkers by global standards – the World Health Organisation reported that we each drank, on average, 12.2 litres of pure alcohol in 2012, virtually double the international average.

Unsurprisingly, given the scale of the drinking problem, almost three quarters of us report being adversely affected by someone else’s drinking, and more than a third say they have suffered from alcohol-related violence.

That is why the AMA organised the National Alcohol Summit late last month, bringing together politicians, doctors, public health experts, police, industry and members of the community to delineate the problem and, more importantly, to work out what can and should be done about it.

In this regard, it was inspiring to hear from Ralph and Kathy Kelly, whose son Thomas was killed in a random alcohol-fuelled attack in King’s Cross in mid-2012.

Determined to do what they could to make sure something like this never happens again, they formed the Thomas Kelly Youth Foundation to campaign for changes to make the streets safer, including shorter opening hours, tighter licensing laws, and tougher penalties for those who attack others while drunk.

The Summit heard just how much the nation’s drinking problem is costing us, in terms of lives cut short, families broken, people left maimed, serious and chronic illnesses, lost productivity, traffic accidents, mental illness, and social and emotional problems.

The toll is staggering – estimates of up to $15 billion a year from the burden of disease alone, and up to $36 billion taking into account all harms.

It is clear that a substantial majority of Australians is well aware of the problem, and want something to be done.

That is why the AMA, drawing on the proceedings of the Summit, has proposed the Federal Government adopt an eight-point National Alcohol Strategy that:

·        sets out the Commonwealth’s leading role in ensuring a nationally-consistent approach to rules governing the supply and availability of alcohol;

·        includes the development of an effective and sustained public education campaign about the harm caused by alcohol;

·        increased investment in alcohol prevention and treatment services;

·        the development of measures specifically addressing the needs of the Indigenous community;

·        the statutory regulation of alcohol marketing and promotion, backed by meaningful sanctions;

·        improved research and data collection regarding alcohol use;

·        a review of alcohol pricing and taxation; and

·        transparent policy development independent of industry influence.

These are all things on which work can, and should, begin immediately.

The AMA was gratified to see that senior members of all the major political parties, including Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash, Opposition leader Bill Shorten, Shadow Health Minister Catherine King, and Australian Greens health spokesman Richard Di Natale, attended the Summit and acknowledged the seriousness of the nation’s drinking problem.

But the time for talk is done.

We now want to see them back up their words with action, and the AMA will not let up on the pressure for them to act.

As AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler said when closing the Summit, we will use every road fatality, every bashing, every case involving a child with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and every other alcohol-related tragedy to hammer home to the Government its responsibility to act, and I urge you all to do the same.