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Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Page: 1778

Ms MARINO (12:57 PM) —I rise to speak on the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009. There is no doubt that there are alcohol, binge drinking and alcohol related problems in Australia. I strongly support serious and sensible measures to counter binge drinking and broader issues with excessive alcohol consumption and, equally important, the issue of drug use. These measures include providing education and information, the support of families and young people, the support of communities, law enforcement, industry involvement and harm minimisation processes as well as rehabilitation measures.

Excessive alcohol consumption and binge drinking are not problems confined to young women or one specific age group; they are problems across age groups and for both male and female members of society. They are problems that require a comprehensive approach, not just a 70 per cent tax on one specific alcohol product range.

The government introduced what has become known as their now infamous alcopops tax, the tax on ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages. The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs has acknowledged that this bill is a direct tax measure by recommending that an examination of alcohol taxation—which of course includes measures in this bill—be included in the comprehensive review of the tax system currently underway.

The government sought to promote this taxation and revenue-raising measure as a health measure. However, we know that there was no consultation with the Minister for Health and Ageing or the Department of Health and Ageing prior to the introduction of this tax. If this were a genuine health measure aimed at excessive consumption of alcohol and binge drinking, the department would have had a very strong and direct involvement in the process. The health department would have included a suite of measures accompanying that measure, to assist in managing the diversity of health and social problems that go with the excessive consumption of alcohol, and there would have been consideration of all forms and categories of alcohol, not just the ready-to-drink beverages.

A comprehensive strategy is required to deal with what is a complex health, social and economic problem. How many young women did the minister ask whether this tax would stop them binge drinking or simply encourage them to switch to other forms of alcohol products with higher alcohol contents? I have an email from a young lady who said that the reduction in alcopops consumption and curbing binge drinking were, in her mind, two separate things. She said:

To really know if it is really curbing binge drinking that would take months of research into the reduction in brawls and fights outside clubs and pubs, the reduction in hospital related alcohol abuse, ambulance related alcohol abuse, and police and bouncer survey’s of women.

She went on to talk about the substitution of total spirits compared with RTDs, and she said essentially that it was much easier for young women who were drunk to have more uncontrolled and unmeasurable amounts if they were using spirits as opposed to RTDs.

I would be very interested to hear an analysis of the evaluation, research and supporting data on all forms of comparative alcohol consumption undertaken by the government, both prior to and since the introduction of the tax. Has there been a switch from ready-to-drink beverages to another form of more potent product or beverage and has this tax effectively driven consumers to a full-strength substitute? Has there been an increase in drug use as a substitution? What changes have occurred in the retailing of full-strength spirits since the introduction of this tax? What alternative products have entered the market to bypass the tax and what impacts are they having on binge drinking and young people? These are just some of the evaluation methods necessary to support the purported health benefits of the tax. This evidence is only one part of the wider excessive alcohol consumption problem. The government must provide supporting evidence that this tax has decreased levels of risky drinking across all alcohol products on the market and that RTDs are not simply a substitution for other alcohol products, spirits or indeed other substances altogether.

Early reports from an ACNielsen survey from May 2008 showed massive increases in the sales of full-strength spirits. According to an Australian newspaper report on 17 May, this tax measure emanated from a Department of Finance and Deregulation budget submission, explained in the terms of closing a tax ‘loophole’, and was reinforced by a Treasury statement that it had all the data it needed by talking to Customs and the ATO, not the health department. This clearly defines the alcopops bill as a tax issue. The government also claimed that increasing these taxes was a measure aimed at cutting the rate of binge drinking, particularly among young women. We have also seen measures applied to that. To date, the government has not provided firm evidence that this tax has had an impact on binge drinking across all forms of alcohol.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare said at the first RTD Senate inquiry that the increased availability of ready-to-drink beverages does not appear to have directly contributed to an increase in risky alcohol consumption. It also noted that there was no clear trend in preference for RTDs among under-18-year-old females, and there appeared to have been a decrease in the proportion of drinking at risky or high risk levels. Worth noting is the August 2008 edition of the Lancet, in which researchers from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, who were supportive of the tax rise said:

Although the Australian Government’s recent decision is likely to arrest the increased sales of premixed spirits —it is unlikely to substantially reduce the overall rates of usual or binge consumption.

The Wine Research Institute says binge drinking could be less of a problem if wines were produced with a lower alcohol content. Research manager of the wine biosciences group, Dr Paul Chambers, said that lowering alcohol content would be a more effective counter to binge drinking than tax increases.

There is no doubt that excessive alcohol consumption and binge drinking are both very serious problems and are not just confined to young people. There is also no doubt that the abuse of alcohol is a significant social, health and economic issue in Australia. For young people specifically, teenage years are a time of experimentation as well as various forms of risk taking. Young people drink for many reasons: sometimes it is seen as a way to build confidence, in other instances it is because their mates drink, and sometimes it is just to be part of the crowd. Some like to feel as though they are an adult by drinking and others just think it is part and parcel of having fun. Teenage years are also often a time of uncertainty, experimentation and change.

A 2002 Australian school students alcohol and drug survey found that, by the age of 14 years, approximately 90 per cent of students surveyed had tried alcohol, and 12- to 17-year-old students surveyed said that parents were their most common supplier of alcohol—a fact that is often overlooked,. In fact, it was the No. 1 issue identified by high school leaders as part of a youth forum I held last year in my electorate. The 15- to 17-year-olds were extremely annoyed and concerned that the age of binge drinkers was getting younger and younger. They spoke of 12- to 14-year-olds who regularly, in their words, ‘wrote themselves off’. As they said to me, so often the ‘coolest’ kid at the party was seen by some to be the drunkest kid at the party. This group reflected the same findings in the national survey—that it was their parents, friends and sometimes older siblings who supplied the alcohol most often. The most common venues for drinking were at home, at parties and at a friend’s home.

However, one of the most telling factors in that 2002 survey was that the older students said that the most common types of alcohol they drank were actually non-pre-mixed spirits. The younger students were more likely to drink wine, low-alcohol beer and champagne although the dominant drink for young males was beer. And, in Western Australia, this was in spite of liquor licensing laws prohibiting access to and sales of alcohol to people under 18 years of age, as well as laws prohibiting drinking alcohol on the street and buying alcohol for underage people.

There is no doubt that the challenge for so many parents and communities is to keep our young people safe during their teenage years—to not only help them to find the balance of responsible and safe drinking and social behaviour but also make sure that they all come home safe and well from whatever it is they have been doing. How many parents watch their children leave home for a night out with friends and then sit waiting and praying just to hear them come home again? So many parents wait for that precious phone call—the one that says, ‘Come and pick me up,’ when the evening’s plans do not work out or get out of control. It is sometimes the best phone call a parent can receive—even when that is at two o’clock in the morning. No parent wants to see the police officer on their doorstep. Many parents worry about their children drink-driving or being in a vehicle with a driver who is affected by alcohol. Most parents are very aware of their duty of care and responsibility for not only their own children but also their children’s friends who visit the family home. In Western Australia, alcohol is a major contributing cause of hospitalisation and death among young people. One of the toughest jobs for parents can often be that of simply communicating with their teenage children about a range of issues. Being patient, calm, understanding and sometimes non-judgmental can often be the biggest challenge of all.

The economic costs of alcohol abuse are very high. A 2008 report from the Department of Health Western Australia, Impact of alcohol on the population of Western Australia, found that hospitalisation costs associated with alcohol were more than $33 million in 2006—excluding the costs of emergency department presentations. There are also the social costs associated with alcohol abuse in the at-risk and trauma areas: the fractured families and domestic violence, the assaults, road deaths and injuries, the child abuse, the drowning deaths and the female and male suicides—just to name some.

One way of finding out whether this tax measure has decreased binge drinking or alcohol consumption in young women is to ask them. Teenagers were asked this question on ABC Radio 666 in Canberra on 12 February. In response to the question of whether increasing the price of alcopops had worked, the unequivocal answer was no. Neve Breen of Launceston said:

When you put the tax up on the Alco pops it’s not really the drink that people drink to binge drink anyway. It pushes them to drink boxed wine and straight spirits.

Jemima Buckman of Narrabri was asked:

Jemima … are the kids drinking any less?

She answered:

What I find is they … buy … just straight spirits.

One finding of an Access Economics report on trends in alcohol consumption since the introduction of the alcopops tax, in relation to young people switching to other products, was that ‘a switch potentially enabled them to buy more alcohol for the same budget than prior to the RTD tax’.

As suggested previously by the member for Bradfield, the manufacturers of distilled spirits and ready to drink beverages do not want this tax returned to them. The $200 million to $300 million should be placed into a fund independently administered to support education about alcohol, and prevention of, treatment for and rehabilitation from alcohol abuse as part of a comprehensive national alcohol strategy—a strategy that encompasses parents, families, individuals and communities right across Australia.

I do not support this legislation.