AUSTRALIA, like many countries, has a big problem with alcohol.
However, even more so than in some other countries, alcohol is very much a part of the Australian way of life. It is front and centre. It is tradition.
Alcohol is all around us — television, newspapers, magazines, rock concerts and festivals, major sporting events, and even local sporting events.
Drinking, and drinking heavily, is apparently a part of growing up Australian. At least that is how it is promoted to our young people through advertising, marketing and social media.
More than half of Australian drinkers consume alcohol in excess of the recommended intake and one in five Australians drink alcohol at a level that puts them at risk of lifetime harm for injury or disease.
The social appeal of alcohol is on constant public display. Sadly, the harms — the domestic violence, child abuse, street violence, drunken and antisocial behaviour, the road accidents, the misadventures, the damage to unborn babies, families and communities, and the deaths — are too often hidden from view.
Doctors see the tragic consequences of excessive alcohol consumption in their consulting rooms, hospitals and operating theatres every hour of every day.
We need to change Australia’s drinking culture — the health, social and economic burden caused by alcohol is substantial and unacceptable.
The AMA is not talking about banning alcohol or forcing people to stop consuming alcohol altogether. As a society, we need to have a mature national debate and develop a more responsible attitude to alcohol. This requires strong national leadership.
The recent AMA National Alcohol Summit highlighted the harms, and proposed solutions.
Alcohol-related harms take many forms, some unexpected. For example, the latest survey of alcohol-related harm in hospital emergency departments by the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine showed another dark side of alcohol misuse — violence against doctors, nurses and other patients from people who turn up in emergency as a result of excessive alcohol use.
Excessive alcohol consumption is an issue that deserves a nationally consistent response and a national strategy. Spending money and making announcements in an ad hoc way is not effective.
This is not to take anything away from individual initiatives but, if not supported and not part of an overarching theme, what do they achieve?
This is not an “us against them” scenario, but our society does face barriers and there are often strong vested interests. The alcohol industry is powerful, sophisticated and it has money … and political influence.
Small amounts of money spent on education and campaigns in one area can easily be swamped by industry spending on marketing and promotion. The industry has media influence too. It spends a lot on advertising and social media, which appeals to young people.
This influence must be met head on by our federal government.
There are many practical ways for the government to respond and lead. Spending on public education and campaigns is one important example. Regulation is another.
Simple changes can be made that are very cost-effective, such as mandating labelling on alcohol products, which should include health warnings, especially for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), and nutritional information such as energy and calorie content.
Alcohol-related harms can only be effectively tackled through a nationally led strategy of high-impact campaigns to change behaviours and address our unhealthy drinking culture, backed by effective regulation, and early intervention and treatment.
The AMA has called on the government to develop an ambitious, comprehensive, and world-leading national alcohol strategy, to be funded and implemented from the 2015 federal Budget.
Without government leadership, commitment and coordination, it will be left to the doctors, nurses, social workers, counsellors, charities and others to continue to mop up the devastation caused by alcohol in Australia.
In the meantime, the AMA will highlight every road fatality, every bashing, every child with FASD, every tragedy that arises from our unhealthy drinking culture, to remind the government to take its rightful role in this battle.
Associate Professor Brian Owler is the federal president of the AMA.
All presentations and details of the recent AMA National Alcohol Summit are available at ama.com.au/alcoholsummit