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Monday, 20 August 2001
Page: 26082


Senator HARRADINE (1:24 PM) — The Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Account Bill 2001 is a welcome initiative which will inject much needed funds into the campaign against alcohol and other licit substance abuse, into community education and into rehabilitation services. I wish to focus my remarks on the problem of alcohol abuse, as alcohol is the most widespread of all the licit drugs this bill deals with. This is not to minimise the dreadful and harmful effect of other problems, such as petrol sniffing and glue sniffing. These are matters about which there has been discussion in the debate thus far on the second reading of this bill and which were before the Senate committee.

Alcohol abuse imposes an enormous social and economic cost on the community and, according to the Department of Health and Aged Care, alcohol abuse is second only to tobacco as a preventable cause of death and hospitalisation in Australia. It is estimated that alcohol abuse costs the community $4.5 billion a year, or $250 for every man, woman and child in Australia. These costs include lower productivity because of lost workdays, health care costs, road accident costs, and legal and court costs. There are 4,000 deaths and 100,000 hospital episodes per year caused by alcohol abuse. I talk about the economic costs, but the social costs are horrendous and largely fall on the shoulders of families and extended families. These social costs are devastating. Alcohol abuse causes enormous dislocation and disruption within individual families. It is the cause of many marriage breakdowns, split families and untold suffering. Mention has been made of domestic violence. Alcoholism triggers, if not causes, much of the domestic violence that is unfortunately widespread in Australia. Alcohol abuse is a cause of poverty in many families and the burden then falls largely on the extended family.

One of the most disturbing trends in recent years is the increase in drinking by young people, including underage drinking. Much work has been done already to combat the harm caused by alcohol abuse, and a lot of this work has been done by government and non-government organisations. A national alcohol strategy has been endorsed by the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy, and there is a National School Drug Education Strategy. In my own state of Tasmania, the Department of Health and Human Services spends over $4.5 million per annum providing alcohol and drug withdrawal services throughout the state. The state Department of Education funds three curriculum officers to provide policy, professional development and resource support to all schools and commits $200,000 per annum for school drug education. In 1997, a state-community consultative review was conducted in Tasmania, which led to schools being directed to develop a school drug education policy and implementation plan in consultation with parents, students, staff and community representatives.

The money that is being spent on rehabilitation services, for example, is not sufficient. How many of us know of alcohol addicts? How many of us know of a person who has come to the conclusion at last that they have a problem, who has finally been prepared to admit that they need help, but who has met with the response, `No, there is a waiting list,' when the phone call is made and who then cannot get into detox because there is a waiting list of two or three weeks? Once a person admits that they have a problem, the first step has been taken. Why should they wait? Why should they be put on a waiting list for three weeks? In that time you know as well as I do what happens.

It has been estimated that at least one per cent of the population—180,000 people—have a close family member with serious alcohol problems. The individuals who have this illness and their families bear a substantial social cost. When a family is faced with the task of coping with a family member who has a serious drinking problem, it is often very hard for them to know what to do. The person with the drinking problem is usually in denial and will not seek help for themselves. Professionals will not accept a person for help unless the person accepts help voluntarily. Also, the cost of this help can be very expensive, although some offer help on an ability to pay basis.

As you would know, Mr Acting Deputy President, Alcoholics Anonymous does very good work in the rehabilitation process. Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other so that they may solve their common problems and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for Alcoholics Anonymous membership. They are self-supporting through their own contributions. Alcoholics Anonymous is not allied with any sect, denomination, political party, organisation or institution. It does not wish to engage in any controversy and it neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Its primary purpose is to have the membership stay sober and to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety. There are Alcoholics Anonymous group meetings in all cities and in most towns throughout Australia.

Returning to what state, territory and the federal governments are doing, Mr David Crosbie, the CEO of Odyssey House Victoria, in a submission to the Senate committee in July 2001, said:

In the last five years, Commonwealth and State funding for alcohol research, prevention and treatment has been woefully inadequate, particularly when due consideration is given to the burden of disease and social problems associated with alcohol misuse. (Conservative estimates suggest that Commonwealth expenditure specifically allocated to treat, prevent or reduce alcohol related harm amounts to less than $1 per person per year ...)

Remember that alcohol abuse costs every man, woman and child in this country $250 a year. This bill is most welcome and it appears to have the support of the community and, indeed, of industry. According to the Australian Associated Brewers Inc.:

It is ... important to note that it was the AAB, which on behalf of beer drinkers, surveyed beer drinkers to establish what they wished to happen with the disputed beer excise.

This research was conducted in January 2001, and it suggested strongly that beer drinkers believed that the excise should be placed in a trust administered by an independent, charitable foundation to fund causes such as alcohol related medical research.

There has been some concern expressed that the bill does not provide sufficient accountability to parliament. I have been listening to what has been said in the chamber, and I am aware of the points that were made in the Senate committee report. I will listen further to the various arguments put forward on this matter during the debate. The government appears to have chosen an unusual way of establishing the foundation compared with, say, the establishment of the Natural Heritage Trust. However, these are unusual circumstances. The government has collected this money and then realised that it should not have done so. The question is whether this money belongs to taxpayers or to beer drinkers. I believe the foundation is entitled to money derived from the interest on the $115 million, and at this stage—depending on the arguments one way or the other—I indicate my support for amendments which would give effect to this. If the government considers that it is not entitled to the $120 million, it must also accept that it is not entitled to keep the interest it derived from this money and that it should pass this on to the foundation.

I will speak briefly about the advertising of alcohol. According to the Department of Health and Aged Care, the misuse of alcohol is second only to the misuse of tobacco as a preventable cause of death and hospitalisation, as I mentioned before. We have seen the banning of tobacco advertising in Australia, but there appears to be very little restraining the advertising of alcohol—particularly of wines, which are far worse than beer when it comes to binding alcoholics.

The costs of alcohol abuse are second only to the costs of tobacco use—or misuse—and, while cigarette advertising is banned, there is no similar ban for the advertising or sponsorship of alcohol. There have been studies done which have linked the advertising of alcohol to increases in drinking amongst young people. In 1998, the federal health minister launched an industry backed alcoholic beverages advertising code and complaints management system to ensure that advertising of liquor is not glamorised or inappropriately aimed at vulnerable people in the community. Dr Wooldridge said:

Alcohol advertising is a significant part of our daily lives in Australia.

He went on to say:

The alcohol industry spends over $70 million a year on advertising their products.

This was in 1998. He further said:

It is imperative that this advertising is used in a responsible manner which does not adversely impact on the community, particularly those more vulnerable to advertising such as children and young adults.

It is very encouraging to see the alcohol industry associations working together in this way to develop the Code and I will be monitoring advertising closely to ensure that the spirit of the Code is upheld so that all alcohol advertising is responsible and reflects community expectations.

I would like to hear what the government think of the effect of the advertising code for alcohol. Give us an update. What effect is alcohol advertising having on people's drinking habits? Is the government concerned about the increase in drinking by young people? The government is spending $5 million on a campaign to reduce consumption of alcohol by young people and yet it is allowing the alcohol industry to continue to spend of the order of $70 million a year on advertising and sponsorship, especially of sport.

Alcoholism is a disease. It is an illness. It enslaves people and their families. It pushes their families into poverty. Those who live with alcoholics—spouses and children—are enormously affected. Children are the forgotten people in this area. They need to be counselled as much as the alcoholic needs to be counselled. Where in this legislation is support going to be given to that area?

I asked questions in the estimates committee about this foundation and about rehabilitation. I asked whether the new funding would improve availability and access to rehabilitation services to avoid the waiting times for admission, which can contribute to a person with alcoholic problems continuing their addictive behaviours. There is an answer there, but I would like to see a little more elaboration on that. I hope that that might come forth during the committee stage of the debate.

We should not lose hope. In particular, the alcoholics and their families should not lose hope. One of the key steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is to understand that you cannot beat it alone but that you need to make the decision that there is a problem. That is the first step. Having made that decision, the second step is to seek help and to be constant in your resolve not to drink. Amongst the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is the understanding that you need to appeal to a higher being who will sustain you and deliver you from the slavery of addiction.