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.
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