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Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Page: 1781

Mr RIPOLL (1:11 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, also known as the ‘alcopops legislation’. We have heard a wide-ranging debate on the reasons why this legislation is either good legislation, in the sense that it will curb the drinking habits, patterns or culture of anybody who has access to alcopops or alcohol generally, or not good legislation and why it may or may not work. But what we should consider in this debate is that governments need to take a wide-ranging approach. They need to look at all the facts and all the detail, and then they need to actually act in these areas. There is a great difference between what this government has done and is doing in terms of alcohol consumption and the abuse of alcohol, and what the opposition did when in government. There is also a stark difference between what the opposition talk about and the reality of what they did not do when they were in government. That is the real question that needs to be on the table today when we discuss these two bills in relation to alcohol.

This government is committed to finding ways to change the culture of binge drinking and, more specifically, to try and tackle that issue in relation to young people—young women in particular. But it should not be isolated to these two areas because it needs to be understood that alcohol abuse more broadly and binge drinking in particular are great problems for the community at large. We have heard a lot of comments about the impact that it has on families, communities and individuals, and I will make some further comments about that.

This legislation introduces measures, as part of this government’s National Binge Drinking Strategy, to discourage binge drinking, particularly among young people. We do not just talk about that. We actually commit funding to that goal, that outcome, that end—funding such as $14.4 million for community-level initiatives to confront the culture of binge drinking—and we also use sporting organisations and community based organisations where they have a direct link to young people and an influence over them. There are opportunities out there to change those behaviours and that culture.

I note with some interest that opposition members refer either to a range of surveys or radio polling which ask young people whether or not this has had any impact on them in changing their behaviour. The opposition seems to be saying that it has made no difference at all and in the end young people will just go and drink something else instead. I would say to the opposition that they have misunderstood what those young people might be saying. What I believe young people are saying is that they actually do want help in different ways, they do want some assistance. Yes, they might make some particular buying decisions when it comes to price—but that is a good thing. Isn’t that what we are trying to achieve? We want to change the behaviour of young people either to drink less or to understand that certain types of drinks are worse for them, in the sense that the alcohol can be masked so that they may not be so aware of the amount of alcohol they are consuming compared to other drinks. In the end, those surveys go to the heart of what should be understood about this debate—that is, that the government is having an impact, and I think a positive impact, in trying to curb some of the worst parts of binge drinking.

Our commitment does not end just there, though. Our commitment goes on further, into intervention. We have committed another $19.1 million to intervene to assist young people. We want to assist them. We want to ensure that they assume personal responsibility for their own behaviours and the way that behaviour affects other people. That is an important part of trying to get young people to take action for themselves, to be a part of their own practices and of what happens within their own groups. Part of any strategy that aims to do that needs to have some strong messages delivered in ways that young people can access. That is why we are also committing $20 million for advertising that particularly confronts young people with the costs and the consequences of binge-drinking behaviours. We have seen successes in campaigns in other areas. In the area of drink driving we have seen it in road fatalities. You can have a positive impact by having confronting advertising campaigns that really drive home some of the key issues, so I am very pleased to see that we as a government are committing funding to make some positive impacts. What we are trying to do is not only help young people specifically in terms of the alcopop excise but also deal with this issue of binge drinking in Australian culture.

It is of no surprise to anybody that Australian culture does have embedded within it a certain attitude to and behaviour associated with drinking alcohol on many, many different occasions. That in itself I do not see as a problem. Responsible alcohol consumption is part of life. It is part of the things that we do to celebrate, to commiserate, to commemorate—to just live our lives, enjoy ourselves and have a particular lifestyle. But it is when that behaviour becomes a problem for others or for a particular individual that it becomes a problem for government, in the sense that it is the taxpayer that ends up picking up the bill. The taxpayer picks up the social costs, the health costs, the hospitalisation costs, the road trauma costs—all of the costs associated with the worst effects, the worst impacts, of people who abuse alcohol—and we see that nowhere more prevalent than in abuse of alcohol by young people. Young people need to understand that. Although they often pay a high price themselves they need to understand that there is a cost beyond that—the cost of hospitalisation, the cost of doctors and the time they spend, the social cost of what it can do to families, such as family break-up with a whole range of associated issues. I am confident that, as part of the package that we have on the table, we have some serious money to try to deal with some of the excesses.

On the more technical issue of what this bill does, should there be more tax on this particular product? This seems to be at the core of questions being asked, particularly by members of the opposition. In the end, what this bill does is realign properly the rate of excise on premixed drinks, which was an anomaly created under the previous government during the Howard era. The lower rate of excise for premixed spirits that was introduced by the former government was associated directly with a 250 per cent increase in sales of ready-to-drink products. It is pretty clear that, from the point where the previous government made a tax change to make it cheaper for those particular products, there was a massive spike. The problem with the spike in those particular products is how they are marketed, how they are delivered, how they are consumed and the impact they have on people. Unlike other products where you can clearly identify the alcohol through smell, colour and taste, the problem with alcopops is that they are almost a soft drink. That is what they smell like, that is what they look like and that is what they taste like—and there is no question that that is a deliberate marketing strategy by the industry.

I can understand that the industry is trying to promote a product, but if the industry wants to promote a product that contains alcohol then it must do so within a bound set of rules and it must do so responsibly. It must do so in a manner which is ethical. While there is nothing morally wrong or unethical about sweet flavoured alcopop type drinks, what is wrong is deliberate marketing campaigns to particularly target young people through certain sporting facilities or through other marketing methods that deliberately aim at one particular class of person, one category of people in the community, with a drink where you cannot really tell whether you are drinking alcohol or not. People do not really know, and may not know until it is too late, exactly just what it is they are consuming and the impact it is having on them. The industry needs to do a little bit of soul-searching and maybe look a little bit closer at the way they produce, market and develop these products. Of course, if they do not then that is where government has a role to play.

That is what we are doing here today. It is the responsibility of the government to curb those excesses and to ensure that people are safe. It does not mean that you cannot buy these products. It just means there will be a higher cost associated with those products, and that high cost will be reflected in a number of ways. The outcome, that higher cost—the tax revenue to government—will fund the campaigns I mentioned earlier. That is where that extra revenue to government will be going. We will be trying to address those excesses and the problems in the community that are created by abuse of alcohol generally but particularly with RTDs.

Along with the changes made by the previous government and the associated 250 per cent increase in sales of RTDs, we know that in 2004 62 per cent of female drinkers aged between 15 and 17 reported that they were drinking more RTDs. In 2000, the figure was only 14 per cent. Again, there is a marked leap in the number of people who particularly started to consume these products once they realised the lower cost. I think we can clearly identify that price does have an impact on who buys it and how much of it they buy. There will always be replacements. That is something that you can never get away from, but we must curb consumption of those particular drinks by young people. Older people might have a better comprehension of this and a better measure of the amount they are drinking. The issue is with younger people who may not be able to tell the difference. I think the industry needs to pay more attention in this area.

In any given week, the reality is that one in 10 12- to 17-year-olds are binge drinking, and they are doing it to a level of high risk. That data is from the 2005 Australian secondary students alcohol and drug survey. This high level of alcohol consumption has led to very alarming levels of hospitalisation. The number of young women aged between 18 and 24 being hospitalised because of alcohol consumption has doubled in the last eight years. There is something happening in the community in the way that people are abusing alcohol, particularly young women and very young adolescents. But it does not just end there because there is an ugly side to binge drinking—that is, violence. The level of violence associated with binge drinking hurts the whole Australian community and the Australian economy. A recent estimate of the social cost of the misuse of alcohol is a staggering figure—$15 billion per year. That is a credible measure and it is from Collins and Lapsley’s work on the cost of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug abuse to Australian society. Alcohol abuse on its own costs the economy $15 billion a year—a massive cost to every single Australian and every single taxpayer. Anything that a government can do ought to be supported. Anything that a government can do to curb those excesses and spend more money on education, particularly for young people, I think is a good thing.

If only the opposition could come into this place with a coherent argument about why we should not do this, apart from just saying, ‘It’s not working as well as maybe we’d hoped,’ or, ‘It has not quite had the impact,’ or, ‘People still drink.’ We have heard that people are just drinking something else. Of course, some of that is right. People are going to perhaps drink something else or perhaps keep drinking. That is not the point of what we are trying to achieve with this. Where I think we are having success is in reducing the level of consumption of ready-to-drink products, particularly among young people. We have attempted to get this message across loud and clear to the community, and I think that has been achieved. I think that message to curb those excesses is out there and it has been heard by the community.

Not only is it a fact that we are fixing an anomaly created by the previous government with its tax break on alcohol camouflaged as a fizzy type sweet drink—the loophole which led to a 250 per cent increase in the sale of those ready-to-drink products; we are also trying to reduce the number of young people who are binge drinking. The number of young people binge drinking is very high, and we have heard about this from other speakers. Of females who drink at risky and high levels, 78 per cent actually reported that they drank alcopops on their last drinking occasion in 2004—an increase from only 21 per cent in 2000.

Dr John Herron, former Liberal minister and former AMA president, and a member of the Australian National Council on Drugs, wrote to the Prime Minister on 13 May 2008 and said:

I am writing on behalf of the Australian National Council on Drugs … to congratulate your government—

the Rudd government—

on the recent announcements regarding alcohol, particularly the public personal support you are providing for the encouraging work undertaken by the Minister for Health and the Parliamentary Secretary for Health.

He goes on to say:

Utilising the taxation system is one of the most effective measures we have for reducing alcohol related harm and problems for both individuals and communities.

I think that is a resounding endorsement of a step in the right direction. For those listening to this debate, industry people and perhaps young people, I think a number of messages need to be taken from this. One is that we all need to take responsibility for alcohol consumption, alcohol abuse and binge drinking. It has a high cost on the community, taxpayers, individuals and families. This cannot be brushed aside with simplistic arguments which say that this or that will not work and that people will just drink some other product. That is too simplistic. We have fixed the loophole and we have realigned the proper application of tax in relation to particular alcohol products.

Making it more difficult for particular organisations to promote, market and even produce products which are less and less identifiable as alcohol is a good thing. We need to make sure that the industry takes up its responsibilities. No-one is trying to stop them from selling alcohol or particular products, but the taxing regime needs to be right. We are absolutely on the right path on this and industry needs to be responsible for the way it markets, promotes and produces these products. Nobody is trying to tell them not to produce them but rather to do it in a proper way. It was all a little bit too clever and half cute the way that they produced a beer under the definition of beer in the tax act to circumvent the excise tariffs that are applied under these regulations.

That is not the intent nor should it be the attitude of the industry to get around what this parliament is trying to achieve. That is not how this ought to work and it is not how it is going to work. There are many good reasons we have heard in this debate as to why we need to curb the worst of abuses. I am very supportive of what we are trying to do. I, like everybody else in this place and in the community, am very supportive of people having the freedom to consume and buy and do whatever they want, but within the bounds of responsibility. Be responsible. The industry needs to be responsible. Do not make it a cost for someone else. Do not make it a cost for taxpayers, a bill for them to pick up after you have made mistakes in relation to alcohol abuse. I want to commend both these bills to the House and support the work that is being carried out by the Minister for Health and Ageing in this area.