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End the cheap grog and the saturation marketing, alcohol summit tells Govt

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The Federal Government has been urged to add alcohol pricing to its tax reform agenda as part of efforts to curb the enormous harm being caused by widespread and heavy drinking.

The two-day AMA National Alcohol Summit concluded with a call for a Commonwealth-led National Alcohol Strategy to deal with alcohol-related harms, including an overhaul of the excise regime to end the era of cheap booze, the statutory regulation of alcohol marketing and promotion, public education campaigns and more prevention and treatment services.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler said the evidence and experiences presented at the Summit by a wide range of speakers underscored the need for immediate action to address the great damage inflicted on society by alcohol.

“Alcohol misuse is one of Australia’s major health issues,” A/Professor Owler said. “Alcohol-related harm pervades society. It is a problem that deserves a nationally consistent response and strategy.”

The Summit heard estimates that the damage caused by alcohol – ranging from street violence, traffic accidents and domestic assaults through to poor health, absenteeism and premature death – cost the community up to $36 billion a year.

The AMA President said that although individuals and communities had a role to play, governments – particularly the Commonwealth – needed to be far more active in tackling the issue.

“Too many times we hear that it’s all about personal responsibility. It’s rubbish,” A/Professor Owler said. “Personal responsibility is important, but we can’t rely on the personal choices of others for our own safety and health. Governments can influence behaviour through deterrents but, most importantly and more effectively, through shaping individual and societal attitudes to alcohol.”

He said governments needed to take the lead in shaping attitudes to alcohol, and to act on its promotion, availability and price.

A/Professor Owler said that although the nation’s alcohol problem would not be addressed overnight, it was nevertheless the time to take action, and a communiqué issued at the end of the Summit detailed an eight-point plan, including:

·      a specific role for the Federal Government in co-ordinating a coherent national strategy;

·      effective and sustained advertising and social marketing campaigns;

·      increased treatment and prevention services;

·      measures that respond to the needs and preferences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities;

·      independent statutory regulation of alcohol marketing and promotion, including the association between alcohol and sport;

·      improved data collection and research;

·       review and reform of taxation and pricing arrangements to discourage harmful drinking; and

·      ensuring the transparency of alcohol policy development.

The Federal Government has so far rebuffed calls to become more heavily involved with alcohol regulation, though Assistant Health Minster Fiona Nash said the Commonwealth was examining action on several fronts.

Speaking outside the Summit, Senator Nash said “it is like a jigsaw puzzle; there is no one solution”.

She admitted, “there is a role for regulation”, but emphasised the importance of education campaigns, particularly in social media – something the Summit’s communiqué said was necessary.

But the Summit’s call for independent, statutory regulation of alcohol advertising and promotion does not appear to have the same support.

Senator Nash reiterated the Abbott Government’s reluctance to assume responsibility for regulating alcohol advertising, which currently operates on a voluntary basis.

The Minster said a recent meeting of the nation’s food ministers had backed a two-year extension of the industry’s voluntary code following signs of improved compliance by sections of the industry.

But Labor MP Graham Perrett said the warning labels about the dangers of drinking while pregnant that the alcohol industry put on their products were “pissweak”, and the Summit heard evidence that the industry’s system of self-regulation was inadequate.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten told the Summit that alcohol misuse was an issue of national significance that deserved Federal Government attention.

“I believe that the Australian people are ahead of Parliament on this issue,” Mr Shorten told the Summit. “People know what is really happening, [and they] know that if we do not act quickly, the problem will get worse.”

The Labor leader said the Federal Government had a role to play in increasing public awareness and education about the problem, but demurred on committing his party to reform of alcohol taxation or subject alcohol advertising to independent regulation.

But AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis, who is an emergency physician, said it was time for an end to “piecemeal, ad hoc and inconsistent” policy action on alcohol.

Dr Parnis said he and other health workers were alarmed at what appeared to be an upsurge in alcohol-related harm, and the community wanted action.

AMA Federal Councillor Dr Richard Kidd said the solutions needed to be as comprehensive and far-reaching as the problem.

“Leadership and commitment at the Federal level is vital if this is be achieved,” he said. “We do not believe that solutions are likely to be reached if governments continue to defer to the influence and interests of the alcohol industry.”

A/Professor Owler said experience in New South Wales, where sustained pressure from groups including the AMA, public health organisations, community groups and others eventually led the State Government to introduce tough lock-out laws, reduced opening hours and alcohol-free areas in trouble-prone areas of Sydney, showed that governments could be forced to respond.

“The AMA pledges to continue to pressure the Federal Government to act. We will continue to fight,” he said.

Adrian Rollins