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Nation’s drinking problem focus of AMA National Alcohol Summit

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The nation will be urged to reconsider its love affair with the bottle when politicians, doctors, community workers, police officers, public policy experts and industry groups attend a two-day National Alcohol Summit in Canberra hosted by the AMA.

The Summit will be hosted by AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler, who said a national focus on Australia’s drinking problem was long overdue.

“The AMA early this year called on the Australian Government to host a summit at a time when the community was reeling from a series of violent alcohol-fuelled attacks,” A/Professor Owler said. “When the Government failed to act, the AMA decided to stage its own Summit, and bring together a broad range of knowledge and experience from across the community.”

The harm caused by alcohol has drawn increased attention in the past two years following a spate of high-profile alcohol-fuelled assaults in which several young men were killed, and many others suffered significant injury.

Among the speakers at the Summit will be Ralph Kelly, whose 18-year-old son Thomas died after being king-hit in an unprovoked attack during a night out in Sydney’s Kings Cross.

The Kelly family subsequently founded the Thomas Kelly Youth Foundation to campaign for an end to alcohol-fuelled attacks of the kind that left Thomas dead.

Mr Kelly will address the Summit as part of a session on the social costs of alcohol, including street violence and assaults within the family, particularly on women and children.

Other speakers will include AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis, Dr Diana Egerton-Warburton, of the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine, NT Police Association President Vince Kelly, Dr Angela Taft of La Trobe University’s Judith Lumley Centre and Mirjana Wilson of the ACT Domestic Violence Crisis Service.

The close association between alcohol and sport will be the focus of another session at the Summit.

Brewers and distillers promote their products heavily at public sporting events, reinforcing strong cultural links between leisure and alcohol.

The AMA is among those who have been lobbying hard for the Federal Government to close a loophole in advertising laws that allow alcohol to be marketed to children as part of the live broadcasts of sporting events.

The pervasive presence of alcohol as part of the national culture will be addressed by speakers including former AMA President Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, Professor Sandra Jones of the Australian Catholic University, and high-profile public health advocate Professor Mike Daube of Curtin University.

On its second day, the focus of the Summit will turn to the devastating effects of alcohol in Indigenous communities. Dr John Boffa of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda and Labor Senator Nova Peris will address the harm caused by alcohol and what has and has not worked to curb its abuse among Indigenous Australians.

A particularly pernicious and devastating consequence of alcohol abuse can be Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, which will be the focus of a separate session to be chaired by former AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton.

A/Professor Owler said the AMA was not pushing for a ban on alcohol, but warned the country needed to urgently address the harm caused by booze.

“We will not be calling for a ban on alcohol or for people to give up alcohol altogether,” the AMA President said. “But we will be calling for a national rethink of Australia’s historical alcohol culture, and a fresh approach to dealing with alcohol in a safer and more responsible way.”

The Federal Government has so far resisted calls for it to become involved in tackling the nation’s booze culture, insisting that alcohol regulation is a matter for the states and territories.

But A/Professor Owler said the stance was not tenable, and urged it to “take a strong leadership role in reshaping the relationship between alcohol and the Australian community.”

Adrian Rollins