Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Page: 1767

Ms LIVERMORE (12:09 PM) —Contrary to the exhortations of the previous speaker, I hope that the Independent senators do not follow the opposition down this irresponsible path and that in fact they do vote with the government to pass the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009. I stand here to support this measure introduced for the second time by the Minister for Health and Ageing. The excise tariff amendment billhas a clear aim—that is, to level the playing field in alcoholic spirits taxation in Australia and in turn to discourage binge drinking of so-called alcopops among young people.

The new excise will see these ready-to-drink beverages taxed at a rate of $66.67 per litre of alcohol content, up from the previous $39.36. This brings the excise rate into line with that of a ‘straight’ bottle of spirits and away from the former ‘beer rate’ at which they were taxed. Those in opposition are saying that bringing the tax rates of ready-to-drink beverages into line with those of spirits by increasing that taxation rate could not possibly have any effect and is almost having a negative effect on the rates of drinking in Australia. Are they suggesting that we not tax alcohol at all—that if we make it as cheap as possible then somehow that is going to fix the problem? I think the evidence is that that is not the way to go and that in fact levelling out the treatment of these drinks to bring them into line with what they are—to tax them as a spirit, because in fact they are spirits—is a sensible and rational response to the evidence we have had in recent years about the increase in sales of these drinks.

As a result of this legislation all spirits will be charged at the same excise rate whether they come in a full bottle or are premixed with soft drink. There are scores of ready-to-drink alcohol products on the market. Some have an alcohol content of 3.5 per cent. Most of them, however, are in the five to seven percent range, and some push up to the 10 per cent alcohol content mark. What they do have in common is a tendency to disguise the taste of the alcohol with sugar, colouring and sweet flavours. These drinks, whether milk or soda based, lure in young drinkers with bright colours and labels. Others come with an ‘energy drink’ label and contain high levels of stimulants such as caffeine and taurine. This further masks the taste of the alcohol and can add to dangerous levels of alcohol consumption. Some of these alcopops pack a whopping two standard drinks in a small 250-millilitre bottle.

With these drinks so palatable for young people, and especially for young women, the government knows that it could not continue to leave an open loophole which allowed spirits to be marketed cheaply to young people. This was a loophole created by the former government in 2000 when they gave alcopops a tax break compared to traditional spirits. They opted to tax these sugar-laden drinks at the same rate as beer, giving the liquor companies this loophole to deliver spirits such as vodka and rum to teenagers more cheaply. The result of the former government’s mismanagement has been disastrous.

As the health minister has already explained, between the years 2000 and 2004 the proportion 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. Sales of alcopops grew by 250 per cent since the year 2000. Yet those on the opposite side are telling us that people do not respond and that there is no change in habits or decision making as a result of changes in taxation. The changes that the Liberal Party brought in in 2000 saw an explosion in the sales of these ready-to-drink mixed drinks.

Those opposite have heard the statistics about binge drinking and alcopops for themselves, but they are still sceptical that we face a problem in Australia and that ready-to-drink products target the younger demographic of society. These are groups which typically have drinking patterns that put them at the most risk of harm, especially from these products marketed to them. Yet the opposition are continuing their denial of the binge-drinking problem. They say—along with the big alcohol companies—that sales of straight spirits shot up immediately in response to the tax increase introduced last year. This is a misleading point. Yes, there was an increase in straight spirit sales, but both the health minister and the Public Health Association of Australia have pointed out that in fact there was an overall reduction in the number of standard drinks sold. This included one million fewer standard drinks sold in the first month after the introduction of the tax. The latest numbers say that total spirit sales have fallen by eight per cent, which is beyond all expectations. It is exactly the result we were looking for and proves this government is on a clear path to tackle binge drinking in our community.

In their submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, the Public Health Association of Australia wrote in support of the government in this initiative. They wrote:

… the very early indications are that this approach is effective in reducing introduction to alcohol amongst young women and arresting the disproportionate growth in RTD sales.

…            …            …

Around one million standard drinks equivalent in one month is a significant reduction.

The Public Health Association of Australia have spoken out in support of the exercise. As they point out, their support is not based on a commercial interest but is simply with the view of improving the health of the population. Other groups, including the Australian Drug Foundation, the Australian National Council on Drugs and the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia have all spoken in support of the government’s measures.

The measure to increase the tax rate on these drinks is part of the overall National Binge Drinking Strategy from the Rudd government. The strategy includes: $14.4 million for community-level initiatives to confront the culture of binge drinking, particularly in sporting organisations; $19.1 million to intervene earlier to assist young people and ensure that they assume personal responsibility for their binge drinking; and $20 million for advertising that confronts young people with the costs and consequences of binge drinking. We have already seen that very confronting series of ads ‘Don’t turn a night out into a nightmare’.

At home in my electorate of Capricornia, binge drinking is as much a problem as it is in other parts of the country. Too often we read in the local paper on a Monday morning reports of an alcohol induced fight or a car crash after a weekend of drinking. Taking this step with the excise tariff amendment is just part of our approach. The government is also committed to tackling the problem in other ways. In Rockhampton, this has seen local community group Milbi Inc. granted $150,000 over two years with the aim of creating a greater level of awareness of the risks of alcohol and the alternatives to harmful drinking amongst Indigenous youth aged 12 to 24 years. The program is called Club 500 and it aims to access 500 Indigenous youth and their families to be members of a social development club that will deliver newsletters, health information and youth and family activities. This will provide a community based safety net for family and friends to help them become good role models for the children and young people around them. The program will feature posters, flyer marketing and video clips with anti-binge-drinking messages. I wish them every success.

I have also been in contact recently with John Fitzgerald, who is the preventions program officer with Rockhampton Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Services. He sees firsthand lives that are on a road to ruin because of drug and alcohol abuse. He says that the alcopops tax is a good start and is looking forward to more long-term research data. John and his reference group met this week in Rockhampton to discuss binge drinking, and I am pleased to say that they are focused on harm minimisation, just as the Rudd government is. This has involved education programs for young people, making them aware that they can reduce their risk of harm by lowering their intake of alcohol. It also involves practical things for people when they are out drinking. In Rockhampton, one of the more notorious taxi ranks has been moved to a more central location and is now patrolled with full-time security, making it a much safer place during the night. Likewise, John informs me that there are plans for greater lighting in the CBD, an illuminated path of arrows directing patrons to the cab line and an increased security presence in the city.

John is also busy promoting a very worthwhile program called Good Sports, which is working with sporting clubs across the country to reduce alcohol and other drug problems, increase the viability of the sporting clubs and improve the range of sporting options available within our community. It is not about turning off the taps and removing the kegs from sporting clubs; rather, it is about responsible service of alcohol and making clubs more aware of their position as role models in our community. It helps create a positive community image for the club and secure its long-term future. Rather than there being fears about losing revenues, John says that many clubs have increased involvement due to greater family participation.

John is also involved in a program where Rockhampton will be one of three pilot cities that will showcase the ‘Putting Youth in the Picture’ initiative. This program is endorsed by the NRL and is aimed at keeping younger sportspeople on track, informed and out of trouble. It is an education program developed in regional Queensland to deal with issues confronting young people. John tells me it uses short films to show how young people can become involved in life-altering incidents as a result of poor decision making. The issues presented and discussed include sexual assault, a bar-room fight, use of illegal recreational drugs, binge drinking and underage drinking at a party featuring all these behaviours. It is an exciting program and I look forward to hearing more about it when it is launched in Rockhampton on 28 April this year.

These are just two examples of people working at the grassroots level in Rockhampton to educate young people about the dangers of excessive drinking, which makes me ask: why does the opposition want to make their job harder by defending a tax break for the spirits industry? All this legislation seeks to do is to tax a spirit as a spirit, because that is what is in those alcopop drinks. Companies should not be rewarded through the tax system for clever gimmicks that dress up spirits with packaging and labels that appeal to the underage market. As a government and as a community, we need to send a very clear message about excessive drinking and the dangers of the culture of binge drinking that has taken hold, especially amongst young people. This legislation is, of course, just one part of a larger strategy to combat problem drinking. There is also the $872 million that the Commonwealth government has put towards the National Preventative Health Partnership and, as I have just outlined, the $53.5 million for the National Binge Drinking Strategy, which is already seeing results and getting out there into the community.

That is our message to the community, and it is a consistent message. The opposition’s response is to give hundreds of millions of dollars back to the distillers and to continue the tax break that saw an explosion in the sales of alcopops after 2000. That fact cannot be ignored. The opposition’s position is sending the wrong message, and I think it is a slap in the face to those in the community attempting to moderate drinking amongst young people.