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Feds need to take on nation’s drinking problem: AMA

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The Federal Government is set to come under intense pressure to provide national leadership in tackling the country’s drinking problem when the AMA hosts the National Alcohol Summit later this month.

AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis, who is abstaining from alcohol for the month as part of the annual Ocsober fundraising campaign, said that although everyone shared responsibility for reducing the harm caused by alcohol, it was time for the Abbott Government to step up on the issue.

“We don’t think that there is one answer to this. It is something where governments and individuals both have responsibility,” Dr Parnis said. “But the national Government needs to show national leadership on the issue.”

The AMA has organised the summit, to be held in Canberra on 28 and 29 October, to provide a national focus for widespread community concern about the premature deaths, illnesses, assaults, family breakdowns, mental health problems and economic costs that stem from drinking.

Alcohol is second only to tobacco as the cause of drug-related deaths and disease – more than 18 per cent of Australians were drinking at dangerous levels in 2013 according to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, and the National Health and Medical Research Council has cited research that alcohol consumption cost the community about $15.3 billion in 2004–05, taking into account its contribution to crime and violence, treatment costs, lost productivity and premature death. 

There are promising signs that the nation is reining in its drinking habit. The proportion of people imbibing on a daily basis dropped to 6.5 per cent in 2013, its lowest point in 22 years; children are, on average, delaying their first drink until almost their 16th birthday (a significant improvement from the late 1990s) and almost 14 per cent of Australians have never consumed a full serve of alcohol – up from 12 per cent in 2010.

But Dr Parnis said that, welcome though such improvements were, alcohol continued to exact an unacceptably heavy toll on individuals and the community, as medical practitioners could attest.

“Doctors of every persuasion, whether its GPs, paediatricians, oncologists, psychiatrists, we all see just the scale of health problems as a result of the harm caused by alcohol,” he said. “It’s not just street violence, it’s depression, early dementia, cancer, marriage break-ups, lost productivity, children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.”

The Federal Government has so far resisted calls for it to take national leadership on the issue, deflecting calls for action by insisting it is a State and Territory responsibility.

But Dr Parnis said the summit would show that this was an increasingly untenable position.

He said that, just as the NSW Government had been stung into action to crack down on liquor licensing laws and opening hours by a series of high profile and deadly alcohol-fuelled assaults on Sydney streets, so the Federal Government would find itself coming under increasing pressure to take some responsibility.

The summit will be addressed by a number of national and international public health and alcohol experts, and is expected to recommend a number of practical actions governments, industry and community groups can take to reduce alcohol-related harm.

The AMA has already urged that a loophole in national laws that allow alcohol to be advertised during live broadcasts of sporting events be closed.

“Alcohol is drenching Australia,” Dr Parnis said. “It is everywhere and its harms are everywhere.

“We want to de-saturate the country so that we can enjoy a drink without all the attendant harm.”

He said it was wrong to accuse the AMA and others concerned about the health effects of alcohol of trying to turn Australia into a teetotal society.

“Many of us enjoy a drink,” he said. “But we think Australians are sensible enough about it to know the difference between a social drink and the sort of damage that is being done as part of the current drinking culture.”

Adrian Rollins