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Nation’s drinking binge needs to end: AMA

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The AMA has called for a National Summit on the misuse of alcohol amid mounting community alarm about the damage caused by heavy drinking, particularly following a spate of high-profile alcohol-fuelled assaults that have left several young men dead, and others severely injured.

As the NSW Government responded to outrage over public drunkenness and a string of violent attacks in inner Sydney suburbs with a crackdown on pub, club and bottle shop opening hours and mandatory minimum sentences for assaults by people intoxicated by drugs or alcohol, the AMA said it was time for governments, medical and health experts, community leaders, police, industry representatives, parent groups, families of victims and other stakeholders to come together to discuss practical solutions to curb excessive drinking and the harm caused by alcohol.

“We have a major national problem that requires a major national solution,” AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton said. “We need leadership from the Federal Government and we need support from the State governments.”

The AMA President, speaking at a media conference also attended by AMA Vice President Professor Geoffrey Dobb, AMA NSW President Professor Brian Owler and AMA Victoria President Dr Stephen Parnis, said that although New South Wales’ tough new laws would help, they alone would not solve the problem, even if adopted nationwide.

Late last month NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell announced Parliament would be recalled to pass a package of measures to tackle alcohol and drug-related violence, including 1.30am lockouts and 3am last drinks at venues across the Sydney CBD, a statewide 10pm closing time for bottle shops and liquor outlets, a freeze on liquor licenses in the CBD, and a mandatory minimum eight-year sentence for intoxicated people convicted under new “one punch” laws.

“I have been horrified by the continued drug and alcohol-fuelled attacks on city streets,” Mr O’Farrell said. “I’ve heard the community’s call for action and I’m confident this package of measures will make a difference.”

But the AMA warned that such measures on their own would not be enough to stem the harm caused by alcohol, which would require a much more comprehensive approach.

Professor Dobb, an intensive care specialist, said there needed to be a fundamental change in attitudes toward alcohol.

“What we need is change in the culture we have around alcohol in Australia,” Professor Dobb said. “We can’t celebrate without having a drink [and] we can’t go out for an evening and enjoy a drink without actually drinking to get drunk. We need to change, and we need to involve the whole of the community in this discussion.”

Dr Parnis said he could “fill a book with the number of tragedies that I have seen and treated and witnessed that are directly related to alcohol”.

The AMA Victoria President, who works as an emergency physician, said the harm caused by alcohol extended from traffic accidents and assaults to the toxic effects of alcoholism, including fatal liver damage.

Dr Parnis said that not only did alcohol exact a high personal toll, its effects were a major burden on the health system, with some nights up to one in three emergency department beds occupied by someone with alcohol-related problems.

“This is well and truly an epidemic,” he said. “There is no single fix for this, but there are a number of things we know will make a difference and save thousands and thousands of lives.”

Professor Owler said he was “very pleased” with the measures announced by the NSW Government, adding that “what we need to see is other governments, particularly the Federal Government, playing their part to make sure there are changes to the culture and attitudes around alcohol”.

“To consider this just as a law and order issue is a mistake,” he said. “It’s not just about the lockouts and earlier closing times. We need to consider this as a preventive health and public health issue. It’s about a whole strategy that looks at education, marketing, advertising and our culture and attitudes around alcohol, and how we’re going to face up to that as a community.”

Dr Hambleton said the harmful consumption of alcohol was a complex problem that required action on multiple fronts.

“The AMA wants a whole-of-government approach from all governments that looks at harm minimisation, the marketing of alcohol and how young people are exposed to this marketing, pricing and taxation, venue licensing and opening hours,” he said.

But, Dr Hambleton added, any policy prescription needed to be informed by the everyday experience of those at the frontline of dealing with the effects of alcohol – doctors and other health professionals, police officers, teachers, drug and alcohol services, and families.

The AMA President said the community was in a mood for action on the issue, with a recent survey finding 75 per cent of adults acknowledging the nation had an alcohol problem, and bringing together a wide range of people would help develop sensible and practical solutions.

“A National Summit, convened by the Federal Government, would bring together the experience, the expertise and the passion to bring about much-needed meaningful change to Australia’s alcohol culture,” Dr Hambleton said.

The proposal comes in addition to the AMA’s push for a Parliamentary Inquiry into the marketing of alcohol to young people, and its call for the closure of a loophole in regulations that allows alcohol companies to promote their products during television sports broadcasts before 8.30pm.

The proposed National Summit was backed by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who described it as a “positive and constructive move by the AMA”.

“The AMA’s leadership in calling for industry, public health experts and others to engage in constructive discussions to look at how we can reduce alcohol-related harm is to be commended,” Mr Shorten said. “A National Summit is the most appropriate way to bring these groups together.”

Adrian Rollins