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Rivers of cheap grog blight Indigenous communities

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The cost of alcohol needs to be pushed up and its supply curbed if there is to be progress in reducing the enormous damage caused by alcohol in Indigenous communities, the AMA National Alcohol Summit has been told.

Public health experts attending the Summit said that cheap and readily-available grog was contributing to a dire situation in which Indigenous people were twice as likely to be drinking at levels harmful to their health as the broader population, and were at commensurately greater risk of harm such as illness, violence and premature death.

Though there are significant gaps in information about the damage caused by alcohol in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, data compiled by the Australian Indigenous Alcohol and Other Drugs Knowledge Centre indicate that, in 2004, 52 per cent of Aboriginal people drank at levels that put them at high risk of short-term harm (compared with 35.5 per cent of the broader community) and almost 23 per cent drank amounts that put them at high risk of long-term harm (compared with less than 10 per cent among non-Indigenous Australians).

Lowitja Institute Chair Dr Pat Anderson told the Summit that, in addition to health problems, the “rivers of grog” that flowed through Aboriginal communities contributed to high rates of violence.

Dr Anderson said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in the Northern Territory were 80 per cent more likely to be hospitalised as a result of an alcohol-fuelled assault than the rest of the community.

“Drinking [is] damaging health, but it is also driving destruction and chaos,” she said.

Associate Professor Ted Wilkes, of Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute, said alcohol had “a big part to play in what Aboriginal people are enduring today”.

He said the harmful use of drugs was directly related to disadvantage and poverty, and these had to be tackled as part of any attempt to curb the damage caused by alcohol.

The severity of the problem in the Northern Territory has prompted some radical policy experiments including community bans, mandatory treatment and restrictions on supply.

Dr John Boffa, of the Peoples Alcohol Action Coalition, told the Summit of several measures implemented in Alice Springs that had achieved marked success.

Dr Boffa said the availability of very cheap cask wine – often selling at the equivalent of 33 cents per standard drink – contributed to heavy drinking, and experience had shown that simply doubling the price led to a 20 per cent fall in consumption.

Another approach that had proved effective was a system of photo identification introduced by the previous Labor Northern Territory Government.

Under the system, those wanting to buy take away liquor were required to first provide photo i.d., which would identify if they lived in communities where alcohol was prohibited or were on the Banned Drinkers Register.

The system was scrapped when there was a change of government, and Alice Springs police have instead introduced the Temporary Beat Location scheme.

Under the initiative, police are stationed outside each of the 13 liquor outlets in Alice Springs. They screen people who buy take-away alcohol and confiscate it from those who live in dry communities or who are on the Banned Drinkers Register.

Dr Boffa said that in the first five weeks of the scheme’s operation, the average number of presentations at the Alice Springs Hospital Emergency Department had halved, total assaults fell by 54 per cent, and instances of domestic violence dropped by 50 per cent.

What is more, he said, since the program has been operating, mandatory treatment beds for intoxicated people have been empty.

However, Dr Boffa added, a glaring problem with the scheme was that it was racially discriminatory.

Police Federation Australia President Vince Kelly told the Summit the Temporary Beat Location program was “very, very effective” in limiting the supply of alcohol and helping curb the damage it caused in Aboriginal communities.

Mr Kelly, who was also President of the Northern Territory Police Association for almost 14 years, said alcohol misuse was a major problem in Aboriginal communities and broader NT society.

He said 90 per cent of the problems dealt with by NT Police were related to the misuse of alcohol, and “our hospitals are full of people there because of the misuse of alcohol”.

But Mr Kelly warned that Alice Spring police were unlikely to be able to maintain the level of effort needed to make the Temporary Beat Location program work.

“They [TBLs] are very, very effective, but they are also very resource-intensive, and I am not sure how long the police can sustain them for,” he said.

Dr Boffa said, effective as the TBL program was, the demands it placed on police meant it would be impossible to implement in larger regional communities and cities where there were hundreds of liquor outlets.

Instead, he said, photo identification at point-of-sale had shown itself to be an effective, non-discriminatory and relatively low-cost measure that could be rolled out nationwide.

Dr Boffa said this should be complemented by moves to get rid of cheap plonk by setting a minimum floor price for alcohol.

He said just implementing these two measures alone would make a significant difference in curbing the harm caused by alcohol among Indigenous Australians.

Adrian Rollins