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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 1521

Senator SIEWERT (12:38 PM) —The Australian Greens have maintained a consistent position on this issue throughout this debate on the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and related bill. We made it clear from the outset that we want a comprehensive approach when dealing with the abuse of alcohol in this country. We have a clear position focused on harm minimisation, reducing the influence of alcohol on our culture, protecting the young and the vulnerable and offering help and support to those in need. Our position is evidence based and, believe me, we have researched the issue very thoroughly. Our position is consistent with that advocated by doctors, public health advocates and drug and alcohol experts, and it has been developed in consultation with these groups.

We support, in principle, taxation measures that increase the costs of ‘bads’, which are the things that incur a cost to society, that cause people harm or do damage to the environment. Such measures send both a clear price signal and the message that these activities are undesirable. It also provides a secure source of revenue that can and should be directed to reducing the harm caused by these things. The impact of alcohol, its cost and the harm it does are very significant in our community. We noted with interest a statement released today by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians entitled ‘Alcohol taxation policy in Australia: public health imperatives for action’. The statement quotes figures in relation to alcohol harm and points out that, yet again, they are at an unacceptable level. It documents the following facts:

An estimated 3494 Australians died in the 2004-05 financial year because of their alcohol consumption.

The estimated cost to Australian society of alcohol-related health harms, lost productivity, and crime in 2004-05 was $15.3 billion.

In 2003, an estimated 3.2% of the total burden of disease and injury in Australia was attributable to alcohol.

In 2007, 37.4% of males and 41.2% of females aged 14-19 years reported consuming alcohol at a level that placed them at risk of short-term harm (eg, being involved in a fight or a car crash, or engaging in risky sexual behaviour) in the past year. Just under one in 10 in this age group (8.8% of males, 9.4% of females) did so every week..

In the 10 years to 2002, an estimated five people aged 15-24 years died and 216 were admitted to hospital every week as a result of drinking alcohol. People of this age account for about 52% of all alcohol-related serious road injuries.

In other words, alcohol places a very high financial cost on our society, but you cannot put a dollar value on the harm that it causes in terms of the misery, grief, assaults et cetera that arise from alcohol abuse.

At the same time that this alcohol related harm costs our community over $15 billion a year, alcohol delivers to the Commonwealth over $7 billion a year in customs and excise revenue—that is a lot of money. And that was before the introduction of the additional excise on RTDs, which is estimated to be $1.6 billion over the next four years. We believe the government needs to be spending much more of this money on preventing harm, reducing impacts and helping those who suffer. We have evidence of what works to reduce the risky consumption of alcohol, in addition to tobacco and junk food. It is not enough to put in place a price mechanism alone. We need a comprehensive strategy that will tackle alcohol in the way that we have tackled tobacco. As I said, the Greens have consistently advocated this position since this tax was introduced. Unfortunately, the government is offering only partial measures and holding back from tackling some of the most substantial issues, such as stopping the advertising of alcohol to children, phasing out alcohol sponsorship of sport, taking a tougher approach to the alcohol-fuelled bad behaviour of some of our high-profile people, mandating warning messages on all alcohol advertising and at points of sale, requiring prominent hard-hitting warning labels and investing in early identification, counselling and rehabilitation.

We do not believe it is acceptable for the government to sit back and rake in the alcohol tax dollars without taking a more comprehensive approach and investing more of the massive revenue from alcohol taxes in addressing alcohol related harm. We believe there is an absolute moral imperative for the government to act on this more comprehensive approach. All the public health experts have told us the same thing over and over again in evidence: we need a comprehensive approach. In the evidence presented to the committee—and I was obviously listening to different experts or to a different committee from that mentioned by Senator Cormann, because I heard the health advocates speak very strongly in favour of this tax.

Senator Cormann —Did they give you any evidence?

Senator SIEWERT —They also presented a large amount of evidence that I will get to in a minute. They did say that they would prefer a more comprehensive approach and that the alcopops tax needs to be part of an integrated and sustained national campaign if we want to turn around this scourge on our society. They said that we need more dollars invested in things that work.

High levels of risky drinking and high rates of alcohol related harm among young Australians are unfortunately nothing new. This is in fact not a sudden crisis. The real growth in risky drinking occurred in the eighties and it has been sustained since then. The medical evidence shows that, as does the evidence as to alcohol sales. It also shows that there has been a shift in the pattern of drinking, a shift to RTDs. In fact, Australia has the dubious distinction of having the highest rates of sales of RTDs in the world. Since the eighties, consumption has plateaued, but it remains very high in world terms. In other words, just to say that it has plateaued and that therefore we do not have a problem is not right. We have an exceedingly high rate of abuse of alcohol consumption in world terms. Therefore, we do need to be doing something about it.

The Greens are particularly concerned about the growth in the sales of alcopops. Their sweetness, we believe, is clearly designed to mask the taste of alcohol and make them particularly attractive to young drinkers. They are colourful and are designed to appeal to young drinkers. They have a high alcohol content. Their marketing is directed towards the young, despite what the industry says. It increases risky drinking behaviour by the young, particularly by young women. Unfortunately, there are lots of media stories about the risky drinking behaviour of young people.

The evidence presented to the Senate committee indicated that the RTD excise has reduced the sales of RTDs. I do not think there is any dispute from any of us about that. In fact, it also showed that overall sales of alcohol have gone down very slightly. There has been some level of substitution, but that is relatively small. The Australia Taxation Office figures show that the growth in excisable alcohol consumption—that is, beer, spirits and RTDs—has slowed by 0.1 per cent since the increase in the excise of RTDs for the period from May 2008 to January 2009. That is compared with the previous year. By comparison, the previous three years recorded solid growth in excisable alcohol consumption: 6.6 per cent in 2005-06, two per cent in 2006-07 and 2.7 per cent in 2007-08. So there was a very slight decrease in alcohol sales.

Evidence shows that young drinkers and problem drinkers are particularly sensitive to price signals. Increasing the cost of alcohol, particularly those drinks whose taste and marketing appeal to young drinkers, is more likely to delay when underage drinkers start drinking and how much they drink. The article I referred to earlier from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians also points out:

A 2009 review of 112 studies found that higher taxes and prices led to reduced consumption of alcohol, both for overall consumption and for measures of heavy drinking. In particular, young people’s drinking was very sensitive to price because their discretionary income is relatively small. A recent World Health Organization expert committee report concluded:

Policies that increase alcohol prices have been shown to reduce the proportion of young people who are heavy drinkers, to reduce underage drinking, and to reduce per occasion binge drinking. Higher prices also delay intentions among younger teenagers to start drinking and slow progression towards drinking larger amounts.

Substitution does remain a risk for those with established drinking patterns, which is why we need a comprehensive approach. In Scotland, for example, they are looking at other price mechanisms, such as the minimum price per standard drink. It was also in the media over the last few days or so that England is considering a similar sort of approach.

The Greens remain concerned that without complementary measures the impact of the RTD excise on levels of harmful drinking may be short lived. We believe we have a small window of opportunity that may be squandered if we do not put in place complementary measures. The Greens believe that the sales data indicates that there has been a reduction in consumption and that there has been some substitution but that that in no way matches the decrease in RTDs. But, as I said, we are very worried that what will happen is that this opportunity will be lost, that the price mechanism will become less and less effective if we do not also put in place comprehensive measures that the research very clearly shows are needed. Overseas evidence also indicates that where price has been used as a mechanism it has been successful when it has been done through a comprehensive approach. Where it has been used as a single mechanism it has failed. The evidence that was just quoted from overseas is selective in that the surveys do not include complementary measures, which is why the Greens are so emphatic that this measure needs to be part of a comprehensive package and have complementary measures included.

The Greens have been raising the issue of advertising. Our policy position for a number of years has been that we should end all advertising of alcohol products in the same way that we have ended the advertising of tobacco products. We first need to close the loophole that is in place at the moment that allows some advertising of alcohol to kids during sports transmissions. We need to expand the time when kids are not able to watch alcohol advertising on television to least 9.30 at night. We believe that there need to be very clear mandatory warnings on all alcohol advertising about the harm that alcohol can do. We also believe that the voluntary regulation of the industry has failed.

At this point I would like to point out my dismay and disgust at the campaign that the industry have run undermining this particular measure and the fact that Australia should be doing something about alcohol abuse in this country. That they offered every politician in this building alcopops just before Christmas absolutely dismayed me. I thought it was a disgrace that they should be out there campaigning and lobbying politicians in such a manner. They also refused, during the Senate inquiry, to tell us how much they had spent on advertising and promoting a position contrary to this pricing measure and undercutting it. It was very difficult, therefore, for the committee to establish how much their negative campaign had undermined the success of the price mechanism. They used ‘commercial-in-confidence’ as an excuse for not informing the committee as to how much they had actually invested in trying to stop this mechanism.

The industry were also unable to tell us how much had been spent in their promotional activities offering bottles of spirits with free bottles of Coke to replace alcopops—again, undermining the success of this measure. I do not know how many ads were placed in newspapers across this country encouraging people to beat the ‘alcopops meanies’ by buying straight spirits and mixing them with free bottles of Coke—again, undermining the intent of this measure.

The Greens are particularly concerned about the links between sports sponsorship and alcohol. Again, we think these links need to be broken. We believe sports sponsorship by the alcohol industry at every level of sport needs to be stopped, the same way it was with tobacco. We made that decision years ago because we understood the links between tobacco and sports sponsorship, and the same links are there between alcohol and sports sponsorship. We believe we need to phase that out. We cannot stop it straightaway of course, because we need to do it in a rational manner. We believe we need to start substituting alcohol industry funding of sporting bodies with funding from other sponsors. We need to encourage sports through sponsorship that promotes public health messages. We believe we need to offer help to local clubs and community organisations and give them a choice—to replace alcohol sponsorship or local tavern sponsorship with sponsorship promoting a healthy lifestyle. We also strongly encourage identifying and supporting champions and advocates of much healthier outcomes through sport.

We believe the Australian public has had enough of alcohol-fuelled bad behaviour by our sporting stars at sporting events or in violent public brawls and, unfortunately, in the sexual assaults that have been associated with binge drinking and alcohol abuse. We believe it is time for the government to act. We are concerned, for example, that the Australian cricket team is sponsored by VB. What messages does that send to young Australians when they see our cricket stars, when they win, all standing there for a group photo with VBs in their hands? It sends very poor messages: if you are going to be a successful sports star it is okay to drink or you have to drink to be a sports star. Those messages are all negative, messages that we should not be sending to our young people today.

We are also concerned about labels on alcohol products. We believe that there should be mandatory warning labels.

We are concerned about the fact that access to data in this area is inadequate. It is an issue that has come up again and again in this debate, including from health professionals in committee hearings. What has come up repeatedly is the manner in which data is collected, and its consistency, reliability and accuracy across the country. We believe there needs to be a national approach to data collection and that data collection is fundamental to monitoring and evaluating the impact of not only this policy but also our other policies related to alcohol harm.

We also believe we need early identification and support services. We need to develop and resource early identification and referral services for at-risk drinkers, and maximise the benefits of early intervention, particularly for young drinkers. The Greens are particularly keen that we have early intervention nurses in emergency departments and a single national drug and alcohol hotline number to connect individuals, their family or friends through to existing state and territory drug and alcohol services. There also need to be services focused on particular groups of people—for example, for older people—because alcohol related harm is not just about young people. We need to remember that alcohol abuse affects the whole spectrum of society and we need to offer services to all those people. We need joined-up services offering a client-focused approach to referral, treatment and rehabilitation in a timely manner.

Then, of course, we believe very strongly that we need a well-resourced, sustained national campaign to curb risky drinking and reduce alcohol related harm. We need well-targeted, hard-hitting messages, and not just for young people, as I said. We need an evidence based approach. We need these messages created by an independent authority with no industry involvement. We believe our social marketing programs need to evolve based on the evolving body of evidence.

In conclusion, I would like to just point out the key elements of the Greens’ suggested approach. We have very strong sympathy for this price mechanism. We do think price is a key part of a comprehensive package, but we do not believe that the government have delivered enough of a comprehensive approach. They have not addressed the issues around advertising and sponsorship, which we believe are key components. We very strongly encourage them to look at mandatory warning labels on alcohol products and in advertisements. In addition, they need to look at the issues around data collection, because they are absolutely vital if we are going to have evidence based policy driving our approach to alcohol abuse and alcohol related harm.