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Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Page: 1826

Mr ZAPPIA (4:36 PM) —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. The excise tariff bill increases the rate of excise in the Excise Tariff Act 1921 that applies to other excisable beverages not exceeding 10 per cent by volume of alcohol, commonly referred to as ready-to-drink beverages or alcopops, from $39.36 per litre of alcohol content to $66.67 per litre of alcohol content with effect on and from 27 April 2008. The amendments also increase the excise equivalent duty on the relevant imported equivalents of these products in the Customs Tariff Act 1995 to the same rate.

In 2004-05 the estimated social costs of alcohol abuse in Australia were over $15 billion. Those were estimated costs and that was five years ago. I would expect that today the costs would be much higher, with alcohol abuse featuring prominently in a number of areas: homelessness; domestic violence; marriage break-ups; general violence at nightclubs, front bars and other social venues; sporting events, amongst spectators, with many venues now banning alcohol consumption; child abuse and sexual assault cases; and motor vehicle accidents, where we hear, over and over again, that alcohol was a contributing factor. Alcohol abuse also featured highly in relation to the social problems in Indigenous communities and the need for government intervention in the Northern Territory. One has only to pick up today’s Age to see the headline on the front page ‘Judge’s plea for new Northern Territory booze curbs: alcohol crisis beyond comprehension’. There is substantial and overwhelming evidence that alcohol causes so much social grief.

The impact of alcopops drinks is most notable amongst young people, with binge drinking now a major social problem. It is a problem frequently referred to as an epidemic, with the alcopops industry admitting that their sales have increased by 250 per cent since 2000. When the measures in this legislation were introduced by the Rudd government, I asked a number of people who were associated with drug prevention programs in the Makin electorate—people such as Jo Baxter from Drug Free Australia—about alcohol abuse amongst young people. There was a universal response from all the people I spoke to that alcohol abuse amongst young people was the issue they were all most concerned about and that they supported this legislation. These are people who have to personally deal with alcohol abuse cases. They see the problem firsthand and speak from experience.

As the Minister for Health and Ageing outlined in her second reading speech on this legislation, there is widespread support for this measure from across a diverse sector of society that has expertise and credibility on this issue, yet the coalition continues to oppose this bill. In the face of overwhelming evidence, one has to ask why. One can only conclude that the opposition wants to protect the interests of the big distillers.

In my view, raising the alcopops tax achieves three important objectives. Firstly, it closes a loophole created by the previous government and now being exploited by the big distillers. Secondly, it increases the cost of alcopops drinks, with the intended objective of reducing consumption of those drinks—an objective that is working, with tax office figures showing that, in the first nine months since the increased costs came into effect, alcopops sales have dropped by 35 per cent, when compared with the previous year. Thirdly, people consuming those drinks will, rightly, make a greater contribution towards the social costs of the matters that I referred to earlier as being borne by society and related to alcohol abuse.

Given the opposition’s stance on this issue, one can only conclude that the loophole that they created in the original legislation was deliberate. If it was not then logically they should support the legislation. Or have they simply succumbed to the pressure from the large distillers? The large distillers have themselves embarked on a major campaign to convince us that the alcopops legislation will not have the desired effect. I am sure all MPs have received the distillers’ many publications refuting the effects of this legislation. The sales figures, however, speak for themselves. Clearly, the government’s strategy is working. If the strategy was not working, the distillers would not be concerned and would not be spending large sums of money campaigning against this measure.

We are dealing with an issue that can have a devastating effect on the lives of young people. It is a serious issue and to trivialise it as simply a tax-raising measure, as the opposition and the large distillers are doing, is a sad reflection of their lack of concern for young people. Alcohol destroys lives, and young people are particularly at risk. We know that young people are the main consumers of ready-to-drink products. I do not believe there is any disagreement about that.

This legislation was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs on 15 May 2008, and the committee’s report was presented to the Senate in June 2008. The Senate committee looked into this matter after a number of issues that opposition members say they are concerned about had already been put on the table. I point out that it was not government members who had the majority numbers in that committee; there were members from all parties. In fact, whilst it is true that the coalition members prepared a dissenting report, it was not just government members who put forward the recommendations of the final report. Firstly, I note that the Senate committee supported the recommendation to introduce the excise increase on alcopops. Secondly, I note some of the expert comments in submissions made to the Senate inquiry with respect to the effects of alcohol on young people. I want to quote a number of comments in the committee report. The National Health and Medical Research Council noted:

… both young people under 18 years of age and young adults up to the age of 25 continue to be greater risk takers than older adults, but still have poorly developed decision-making skills, which are reflected in the high levels of injuries sustained in these groups. Alcohol affects brain development in young people thus drinking, particularly ‘binge-drinking’, at any time before brain development is complete (which is not until around 25 years of age) may adversely affect later brain function.

It went on:

The Australian Medical Association … noted that excess alcohol consumption is ‘an issue of public health significance leading to an unacceptably high level of sickness and social disruption’. They added that the drinking behaviour of teenagers and adolescents was of particular concern as:

  • young people were often involved in risk taking behaviours with little understanding of the potential effects of these choices;
  • teenagers and adolescents were inexperienced with drinking and were at an earlier stage of brain and body development; and
  • there was evidence that early onset of drinking was associated with long term alcohol consumption levels into adulthood.

The report on the prevention of substance abuse, risk and harm in Australia by the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy found:

Alcohol causes the deaths and hospitalisation of slightly more children and young people than do all the illicit drugs combined and many more than tobacco … In other words, alcohol alone causes more hospitalisation and deaths of young people than all of the other illicit drugs put together.

The report also states:

These deaths are almost invariably caused by either intentional or unintentional injuries.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians told the committee:

Young people are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol because of the combination of inexperience of drinking, and the frequent combination of high-risk drinking with high-risk activity and potential accidental injury.

The committee report noted:

Emeritus Professor Ian Webster of the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation (AER) advised the Committee that evidence showed the earlier young people started drinking, the more likely they were to have ‘continuing problems around alcohol and other drugs and to have subsequent mental health problems and that this in itself justified concern about RTDs and young people in general’.

The report went on to state:

Research conducted by the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) showed that alcohol was a major contributing cause of death and hospitalisation for young people, with the majority of alcohol related harms caused by episodes of drinking to intoxication. It revealed that—

and these are some of the critical, stark and frightening statistics—

  • in the ten years from 1993-2002, an estimated 2 643 young Australians aged 15 to 24 died from alcohol attributable injury and disease due to risky/high risk drinking (about 15 per cent) of all deaths in that age group;
  • from 1993-94 to 2001-02 there were an estimated 101 165 alcohol attributable hospitalisations for young people, accounting for one-in-five (about 22%) of all hospitalisations in that age group.

That is the extent of the alcohol problem amongst young people. It is a serious issue, and those figures speak for themselves.

So I come into this place and ask the question: why do opposition members say that they share the government’s concern about binge drinking yet oppose this legislation? Firstly, I say this to them: the statistics that I have just read out were available to them some years ago—in the years that they were in government. They had those facts and figures. If they share the government’s concern about binge drinking, what did they do about it? They did absolutely nothing. It might be fair to say that they were not aware of the problem, but the figures were produced in reports that were made available when they were well in government. They had plenty of time to act before they were turfed out of government, but they did nothing, so, when they come in here and say that they share the concern about binge drinking, their actions speak for themselves. They will be judged on their actions, not their words.

Secondly, I say to the opposition: if they want to come in here and oppose this legislation, they should not rely on information which is flawed and which has been provided by the big distillers. It is the big distillers who have a vested interest in preventing this legislation from going through. If you want to come in here and put up opposing arguments, at least use independent material, not that provided by the very beneficiaries of the situation as it currently stands. Thirdly, I go back to the question of the loophole and say this to them: I have not heard one single member of the opposition come into this chamber and say whether they believe that there is a loophole or not. They avoid that question. Let them answer the question: is there a loophole there? If there is then it would seem to me that, if for no other reason whatsoever than to close the loophole, they should be supporting this legislation. It is good legislation and I commend it to the House.