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Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Page: 1735

Ms SAFFIN (9:36 AM) —I rise to speak in support of the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009. I say to the honourable member for Dickson: you and your cohort had 12 years to fix some of these problems that have been left to the government to fix, and all you could do in 2000 was lower the tax on alcopops. I also say to the honourable member for Dickson: you talk about attacking the problem of binge drinking, but you and your cohort had 12 years and I did not see any evidence that you were doing anything to attack binge drinking. Amphetamine use, ecstasy and spiking of drinks—all of the problems you raised in your contribution—none of them are new problems.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—Member for Page, I ask that you refer your remarks through the chair rather than refer to ‘you’, in that context being the speaker.

Ms SAFFIN —Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker. I stand corrected on that. I will speak through the chair.

Through you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to the honourable member for Dickson, I put it that the opposition had 12 years and I saw no evidence—simply a reduction in the tax on alcopops. Alcopops are what we are talking about here today, and we are talking about our young people. Put simply, this public health initiative is saying clearly to distillers and producers that we, the community, do not want drinks designed to appeal to our young people. That is what alcopops are about. The opposition can put whatever spin on it they like but the fact remains that this is, first and foremost, a public health initiative—one that in general policy settings has the support of the World Health Organisation. The member for Dickson said that there was no support from the Department of Health and Ageing anywhere for this initiative. I would consider the World Health Organisation to be the pre-eminent health advisory body, and its advice is very clear. It says that increased alcohol taxation has proven effective in reducing alcohol related problems among young people. That is pretty clear. Faced with the choice between the musings of the opposition and the member for Dickson, who are the architects of the 2000 reduction of tax for alcopops, and the World Health Organisation, I know where my money would be; it would be with the World Health Organisation.

The amendments, which I refer to quite simply as ‘alcopops amendments’, ensure that beer and wine based products that attempt to mimic alcopops with regard to their taste are taxed correctly as a spirit product, which we know has a higher tax, as it should have in this case. The amendments will not impact on regular wine and beer drinks. The amending bill imports a definition which sets a combination of minimum limits on the bitterness and maximum limits on the sugar content that has to be consistent in measurement in the final beverage. This means that no flavour will be able to be added to wine and grape wine products, either natural or artificial. These definitions, as I read them, will apply from July 2009.

We know about what are called ‘malternatives’. These were introduced. The Bills Digest says:

It is also important to note that drink substitution has been rendered easier with the recent introduction to the Australian market of so-called ‘malternatives’. The new drinks, which are pitched at drinkers aged between 18 years and 30 years, are similar in alcohol content, flavour and appearance to many alcopops. However, because these drinks are beer rather than spirits-based, they attract far less excise than do their alcopop equivalents, and retail for around half their price. The maker of one of the new ‘malternatives’ is reported as having introduced the new product directly as a result of the alcopop excise increase. Corporate relations director of Diageo, the world’s largest alcohol company, has stated that ‘this is a time when [the launch of the product] makes sense …

It does not make sense because we are trying to reduce the intake of alcopops. I will also quote from the opposition leader, the member for Wentworth, addressing the National Press Club on 22 September 2008. He was talking about binge drinking. The direct quote is:

One should never underestimate the enterprising ingenuity of the Australian drinker.

The comment should really be that we should never underestimate the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia and the independent distillers association or the people who make the products, for their ingenuity in coming up with other products. That is why this amending bill is necessary—so that we do not have the market flooded with products like alcopops.

A number of related associations have supported the government’s initiative—as, indeed, have parents—within a policy framework designed to target binge drinking as well as excessive drinking or risky drinking, but what we commonly know and call binge drinking. We and the community understand that. It is aimed at lessening the drinking of alcopops. It is a public health initiative, and that is the business of government; it is about prevention and it is about promotion. This is clearly about prevention of alcopops and it is clearly about promotion in saying that these products are no good for young people. I have spoken with young people in the community and canvassed their views on this initiative. Some of them who drink it, and who like to drink it, understand that the government is correct in trying to make sure that they do not drink it.

The government is committed to reducing binge drinking, and these amendments are located squarely within that policy setting. This is one tool of a number of health initiatives within that framework. We can debate what we like about who said what and what we can and cannot do, and we can sit back and do nothing, but nothing will change and the drinking will increase. That is just not acceptable.

I say to the nay-sayers that they can continue to do nothing or they can reduce taxes on alcopops and things like that, but we have to do something. Recent comments from, in particular, my local papers and in my local community are replete with incidents of alcohol fuelled violence, primarily with young people, but not just young people. The link between alcohol and violence in our society is strong, and binge drinking adds to and exacerbates that. It is a factor, and we cannot ignore it.

In Australia we have a culture of drinking. We celebrate it and we celebrate by drinking. That leads to excessive drinking and we as adults are responsible for a lot of it. We have to try and change it because we cannot blame our young people. They grow up in a culture where alcohol is legal, alcohol is common and we drink alcohol. This is one of the ways that we can try and reduce excessive drinking. Also, within the context of binge drinking, alcohol and alcohol-fuelled violence, the costs are enormous. I have read that it costs the community anywhere from $15 billion up because of the demand on our health services due to accidents and fights, because of insurance costs, because of court costs and because of prison costs. Yet we as a society often have our head in the sand about this problem. We use selective legal sanctions and mores—but often to little avail—to curb binge drinking or excessive drinking, particularly for our young people. One of the best ways is to lead by example, and I am afraid that as a community and a society we have not led our young people too well sometimes in not drinking too much and not having a culture that celebrates alcohol and incorporates it into our everyday life.

The honourable member for Dickson forgot to say in his contribution is that in 2000 the opposition, the then government, agreed to a tax break for alcopops. That is correct. It was damaging decision. Can you imagine any health minister agreeing to such a damaging decision as this? The Labor government’s amendments, led ably by the Minister for Health and Ageing, Nicola Roxon, reverses the Liberals’ 2000 decision concerning the alcopops tax break. I have to say again: what health minister in his right mind could support such a proposal? It baffles me that that one got through, that it went through to the keeper, and I am quite gobsmacked that they did it. Of course the opposition have to come in here today and oppose it, because we are reversing their bad policy or what I call their lazy policy decision making in 2000.

The opposition has also said that there is no evidence that the excise on alcopops is working, and I will turn to that in my contribution. There is clear evidence that it is working. I would like to say firstly that the binge-drinking problem is a real problem. We can debate it and talk about the quantum of it and manifestations of it in various communities, but the fact is that it is real. We know it. We see it. We live in communities. We are part of communities. We are not blind. We can see it all. Closing the alcopops loophole is supported by community leaders, police and health experts. In any given week approximately one in 10 12- to 17-year-olds—that is very young—are binge drinking or drinking at risky levels. The number of young women aged 18 to 24 being admitted to hospitals because of alcohol has doubled in eight years. That is a big health problem and a big societal problem.

In a year more than three-quarters of a million Australians are physically abused by persons under the influence of alcohol. The annual social cost of alcohol misuse in Australia is estimated to be about $15 billion. Last year the New South Wales Commissioner of Police, Andrew Scipione, estimated that:

… something like about 70 per cent of every police engagement with a member of the community in the streets of NSW has alcohol as a factor.

Not all of that is related to alcopops, of course, but we are talking about alcohol. We are talking about one particular product that is very problematic. Alcopops deceive young people. They are targeted at young people. We have all seen the advertising campaigns. We know that advertising works, and alcopops are dressed up to be sexy, attractive, exciting: the world is your oyster; get on the alcopops and everything will be well. But alcopops clearly target young people and underage drinkers and, if we have a look at the facts that I have iterated—that one in 10 12- to 17-year-olds is binge drinking or drinking at risky levels—we can see that they are the group being targeted by the industry and by advertising.

Between 2000 and 2004 the percentage of female drinkers aged 15 to 17 who had consumed alcopops at their last drinking occasion increased from 14 per cent to 62 per cent. That was between 2000 and 2004, and 2000 was when the Liberal-National coalition government gave the tax break to alcopops. Consumption increased from 14 to 62 per cent. Some of that would be through advertising as well, but the fact is alcopops were made a lot cheaper and therefore far more attractive. Remember the WHO said that taxing does work to reduce drinking in young people. For females drinking at risky and high-risk levels in 2004, 78 per cent had drunk alcopops on their last drinking occasion. That figure had increased threefold after 2000. You only have to look around your local communities or go to the local pub to see that alcopops are very popular, particularly with young girls.

The Rudd government has taken the logical approach by taxing all spirits, bottled or premixed, at the same rate. As a result, consumption of alcohol has dropped. Researchers agree that the measure works. An independent expert report by Collins and Lapsley, commissioned not by the Rudd government but by the Howard government, found:

… alcohol excise taxes are capable of being designed explicitly to target the types of alcohol known to be the subject of abuse (for example, high strength beer and alcopops) …

That was a report commissioned by the Howard government, yet they still gave a tax break on alcopops. The report went on:

For example, studies show that young people are more influenced by the price of alcohol so that increasing the tax rate on alcoholic drinks which are specifically targeted at the youth market is likely to be effective.

As a result, there would appear to be strong justification for the April 2008 increase in the tax of 70 per cent on premixed drinks and alcopops. The ATO figures, drawn from the first nine months of this measure, show that alcopops sales have dropped by 35 per cent, compared to the previous year. In fact, alcopops sales have slumped, bringing overall spirit sales with them, despite a smaller increase in full-strength spirit sales. Overall spirit sales have fallen by almost eight per cent. That was something that the honourable member for Dickson did not add when he talked about sales of spirits.

I will turn to what some of the experts say. The CEO of the Australian Drug Foundation, Mr Rogerson, said:

This tax fixes a problem started with the introduction of the GST and shows that the Government is serious about tackling alcohol problems in our community.

The CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, Mr Templeman, said:

… this initiative clearly recognised the problems created by the excessive consumption of RDTs which were attractive to the youth market.

Mike Daube, President of the Public Health Association of Australia, also a member of the National Preventative Health Taskforce, said:

There is now dramatic evidence showing that young women are out-drinking their male counterparts—and unfortunately many of them drink to get drunk …

We know that price is the most effective single measure in reducing alcohol consumption, especially by young people. This increase will make a real dent in one of our biggest current social problems.

These views are in contrast to that of the alcopops industry, which is motivated by profit. I am not condemning that. That is what industry does, that is what the market does, but don’t have it joining the debate, talking as though it is concerned about our health, acting like the Florence Nightingale of the distillers industry, because clearly it is not.

A whole lot of products were delivered to our office at the end of last year. I am sure they came from the distillers. All of a sudden, various drinks arrived in our office. They were sending various drinks around. I am really not too sure what it was designed to do. It rather puzzled me. They delivered a bottle of passion wine and other things. I am really not sure what it was about. It was probably a waste of their money. In terms of a campaigning strategy, it was an absolute loser. I am not sure where all the drinks went to, but they seem to have disappeared.

The industry continue to try to confuse this issue, and it is not working. They argue about annual seasonal variations, which occur year in, year out, and they show trends that simply do not show that. This initiative shows that the Rudd Labor government is clearly committed to reducing alcohol consumption by young people, particularly young girls. We are in the business of protecting health— (Time expired)