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Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Page: 1744


Ms OWENS (10:16 AM) —I am very proud to rise to speak in favour of the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009. These amendments confirm in legislation the increased rate of taxation for alcopops from 39.36c to 66.67c per litre of alcohol content, effectively bringing the tax on alcopops back to the equivalent rate for spirits. These amendments close a loophole on excise for alcopops that has been around since 2000 that has effectively left the liquor industry with a tax break on the sale of sweet, sugared drinks that are marketed predominantly to young people.

The opposition argues that we should not close this loophole. I am going to address some of the arguments made by the two previous speakers but, first, I just want to talk about how this loophole came about. Prior to July 2000, excise was paid on the premixed spirits component and then RTDs were manufactured to meet the desired strength, flavour and other properties. But on 1 July 2000, the former government introduced the tax rate on ‘other excisable beverages not exceeding 10 per cent by volume of alcohol’. The then government also imposed excise on these products at a broadly equivalent rate to that applying to full strength beer. As a result of this change, the rate of excise on spirits used in the manufacturing of RTDs went from the spirit rate to the lower beer rate. I do not assume that this was a deliberate move on the part of the previous government to create an effective tax break on drinks marketed to young people. I think it was an unintended consequence. But it was a consequence.

I will deal with the rise in sales and the effective increased alcohol abuse later, but I am just going to return to some of the arguments put forward by the members for Mayo and Dickson. They seem to argue against the closing of the loophole for four reasons. One, they seem to question our motives. I am not sure whether our motives or the outcome of the bill should be the principal consideration, but they do question our motives. Two, they seem to want much more done about illicit drugs. I doubt that there is anybody in this House who does not want more done about illicit drugs, but I would suggest to them that you do not knock off a bill that addresses abuse of alcohol because you want things done in other areas; you try and do both, as we on this side of the House are doing. Three, there seems to be a bit of disagreement on the other side about whether we do or do not have a binge-drinking problem in Australia. For those on the opposite side who do think it is an issue, they clearly want something done but they seem to argue that the liquor industry will simply find another way—which of course they will. This is one of the ways they found because of a tax loophole that was introduced in 2000, and there is no doubt, watching the behaviour of the liquor industry in exploiting that tax loophole over the last eight years, that they will attempt to find other ways. But that is not a reason to close this bill down. It is a reason to be vigilant and to continue to watch and monitor the activities of the industry in relation to its promotion of a drug—albeit a legal one—to young people.

Four, the member for Mayo also seems to be arguing that alcopops actually protect young people from excessive drinking, that somehow providing them with a measured amount of alcohol in these extremely sugary drinks is effectively protecting young people from excessive alcohol consumption. That is an astonishing point to make. From analysis by health experts and conversations I have had with young people, it seems to be just the opposite—these drinks which are designed to disguise the taste of alcohol lead to young people who do not like the taste of alcohol actually being introduced to alcoholic beverages at a much younger age. For those of us who did go through the binge-drinking phase when we were younger—and I confess to being one of them—we would all be aware of how out of control drinking can be when the taste of alcohol is not present. I think we have probably all had cocktail nights. As we mature and get older and become more experienced, we learn to appreciate the danger of those sugary, easy-to-drink beverages and exercise a little more adult and experienced restraint.

Let us have a look at exactly what we have with these drinks that we call alcopops. Alcopops are those bright-coloured, sugary drinks that you often see these days around the front doors of liquor stores. The alcohol taste in them is disguised, they are largely targeted at young people, and they are frequently consumed by under-age drinkers. Since the loophole was introduced in 2000, the use of that loophole for tax breaks seems to have worked. The industry itself admits that its sales of alcopops have grown by 250 per cent since 2000. 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. For females drinking at risky and high-risk levels in 2004, 78 per cent of them drank alcopops on their last drinking occasion. That figure has increased threefold since the year 2000 when the tax loophole came into effect.

In any given week, approximately one in 10 12- to 17-year-olds are binge drinking or are drinking at risky levels—that is one in 10 12- to 17-year-olds in today’s society. Almost 20,000 girls aged between 12 and 15 drink daily or weekly. The number of young women aged between 18 and 24 being admitted to hospitals because of alcohol has doubled in eight years; and, in a year, more than three-quarters of a million Australians are physically abused by persons who are under the influence of alcohol. These are all facts that we should be concerned about, and we in this place should be finding ways to minimise the risk of binge drinking in our society and in our communities.

Alcohol is, of course, a drug. It is a legal drug, but it costs our community much more than illicit drugs. The annual social cost of alcohol misuse in Australia is estimated to be around $15 billion. Last year the New South Wales Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, estimated that something like 70 per cent of police engagements with members of the community in the streets of New South Wales had alcohol as a factor. This is an extremely important issue that we face in our community, and we should all be concerned at the rise in the misuse of alcohol among young people, particularly people between the ages of 12 and 17, and we should all be concerned about the rise in the misuse of alcohol among young girls.

I am not a health expert. I think everyone knows my background; I am actually a musician. But musicians know a bit about alcohol, because most of us work at times when everyone else is playing. I have played piano in clubs seven nights a week between 7 pm and 2 am in the morning, where every customer buys you a drink. When everyone else is playing, we are actually working, and when we are trying to play everyone else is at work. With musicians you find that by the time they get to about the age of 40 they do not drink at all. When you go out for a drink with one of your mates from the music industry, you are all on water. That is either because they are already an alcoholic or because they do not want to become one. I was raised by one, by the way. My father is a musician. He took up the clarinet when I was a baby and went full-time as a musician when he was in his late 20s. Because of that, we did not have alcohol in the house at all. It did not exist in the house when we were growing up. My father always said that the danger of alcohol is not so much the binge drinking; it is when you have a glass of wine today, or you have a beer before you go to sleep, or when you are working you have a beer, and the drink becomes part of that activity. After a year or so, you start to think that you cannot play unless you have had your scotch. Effectively it becomes essential to the activity that you do, and that daily intake is what leads so many musicians, in particular, to excesses. I guess I have been raised in a family which was very aware of the danger of making it easy—of surrounding yourself with easy-to-drink alcoholic beverages.

I find the idea that liquor companies would produce alcoholic beverages that are designed not to taste like alcohol, that are actually designed to be easy to drink and not have the taste of alcohol, quite reprehensible. I find the idea that people who do not like the taste of alcohol get into the habit of that alcohol experience without the taste of alcohol quite reprehensible. I think that we in this place are obligated to close a loophole that allows the liquor industry to do that. I absolutely believe that we are obligated to close that loophole.

The members opposite have got one thing right, from my perspective: this measure alone will not fix alcohol abuse. No single measure will fix alcohol abuse. This alone will not do it. There will be people who already are enjoying that alcoholic experience of parties who will find other ways to get alcohol, and the liquor industry will create other products in an attempt to do the same thing, and we will have to be vigilant. This alone will not fix alcohol abuse. Of course it will not. That is why we on this side of the House have developed a program to address binge drinking. We are not foolish enough to assume that the program that we put in place will solve the problem absolutely, but we do believe that our program will improve attitudes to binge drinking.

In March 2008, the Prime Minister announced the first steps in our National Binge Drinking Strategy. The strategy includes $53.5 million to address binge drinking among young people. Elements of the package include $14.4 million to invest in community-level initiatives to confront the culture of binge drinking. Grant programs have been announced and organisations in my community have already applied for funding under those areas. Those of us who mix widely in our communities will know that there are elements within our communities who are quite proud of their alcohol consumption on the previous weekend. There is considerable work for us to do as a community to change attitudes which actually take pride in drunkenness on a regular basis.

We have also committed $19.1 million to intervene earlier to assist young people and ensure that they assume personal responsibility for their binge drinking and $20 million to fund advertising that confronts young people with the costs and consequences of binge drinking. We have probably all seen the government’s ‘Don’t turn a night out into a nightmare’ campaign which has been screening recently. It is quite hard-hitting and gritty, and we hope it will have an impact on young people’s attitudes to binge drinking.

Of course, there is still more to do and, as things improve, we will no doubt be putting forward more policies to make a difference. But the measure in this amendment legislation will reduce the impact of one of the strategies of the alcohol industry that specifically targets young and inexperienced drinkers. And it is working. When we first considered closing the tax loophole, the modelling indicated that there would be a revenue flow of about $3.1 billion. That estimate has been revised down to $1.6 billion, which is attributable to consumer responses to the increased excise rate on RTDs and weaker forecasts of growth in the consumption of alcoholic beverages. When we first considered the loophole, we would have been pleased if we had achieved a reduction in the growth of alcopops. In fact, our modelling showed that we would achieve a reduction in the growth of alcopops. But we have actually received a reduction in sales. Those figures come from the Australian Taxation Office so I think they can be believed. If what the members opposite say is correct, and I do not think it is—that is, that the liquor industry disputes the figures from the tax office—I am sure there will be an interesting discussion. But I do not believe that is the case. The Australian Taxation Office figures show that there has been a reduction.

The measure is working. It is not the time to turn the clock back. It is time for this House to get behind this amendment legislation and close the loophole that was opened up in 2000, which has had the unintended consequences of making it possible for the liquor industry to exploit that loophole and develop products that are specifically targeted to young people and designed to increase the consumption of alcohol among young people. It was working; the closing of the loophole, though, has reversed this trend. It is time for this House to accept that and support this legislation.