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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 1526


Senator MOORE (1:00 PM) —The Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 will not cease binge drinking in our country. To be fair, no-one has ever claimed that they would. There has been a particularly emotional debate around this issue, and in many ways that should be applauded. The issue of binge drinking and the range of measures that must be taken in this country to address this problem are now clearly on the agenda.

The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs has had three opportunities in the last year to look at the issue of alcohol in our community. This process has been very valuable. It has been confronting and quite scary for those people who have had the opportunity to see the submissions that have been presented from across the board. A wide range of public health groups, drug and alcohol agencies and individuals who are concerned about what is happening in this country are on one side claiming that any step forward, particularly one that is looking at the impact of alcohol on young people, is the right thing to do. On the other side there are the marketers, the hotel industry, the distillers and the people who provide and market alcohol claiming that they also want to be part of this process. I commend those people from the industry who do want to be part of this process. They have shown at different times that they wish to be so. Throughout this process there has been a clear divide. I encourage people to look at the submissions, the evidence and the conclusions of the community affairs committee and weigh up what has come before us.

It is very clear that there has never been a claim from the government that introducing these two pieces of legislation will in itself end the alcohol issues in this community. I am disappointed that there has been an attempt to portray it in such a way. We have an integrated process of policy, community consultation and engagement looking at the issues in our community and coming up with ways in which we can be part of the solution. This tax that is before us was introduced about 12 months ago. There has been a process of community involvement in that time. This tax is but one step, and that must be remembered.

No matter how many times the various public health groups before us were asked whether they thought this was right, whether they thought it would be a backwards step and whether it was their key issue, consistently they said that, whilst there needs to be more action taken and there is support for changes to the wider taxation system—and the people who came before the community affairs committee had taken the opportunity provided by the government with the Henry tax review to consider the wider issues of tax—this is a step that must be taken. That is clear and on the record. This step has brought forward the debate in the community and is part of the wider response to the issue. The point was made in the submissions put forward by a wide range of public health groups to the Henry tax review and which were provided to our committee that, whilst considering that in some ways a change to a volumetric tax system may be positive, there always remains the need for flexibility within the system to respond to particular issues. If particular products raise questions or could provide danger, there should be the flexibility in our system to handle them differently, to isolate them. We need to go forward with a tax system that can do that.

The attempts to say that the legislation before us today is not in tune with the wider review of the tax system are just not true. In fact, people were given the opportunity in the community affairs committee consistently by the opposition, who were seeking to bring forward that answer, to say that and consistently the people gave the response that they want this measure passed as well as they want wider discussion and wider consideration of the tax issues. That is on the record, and I draw people’s attention to it.

This legislation is not a one-off response to the issue. The Rudd Labor government introduced as part our election commitment the National Binge Drinking Strategy. That does look at advertising campaigns, engagement with the community and the process of early intervention. It is all spelt out and it is all available. Of course, there is the argument that more could be done. I think that is part of the debate that we must have. The alcopops tax—that is the jargon that is being widely used, and instead of reading out the full title I will continue to use that term—is but one step. It was brought into being because of widespread concern amongst the community about these drinks. The history of the alcopops tax was discussed by the committee. In the midst of the GST discussions there was consideration to put these drinks at a different level of taxation to bring them in line with some of the beer products. However, from that point on we have seen a clear blossoming of this industry across the country and an amazing increase in the way these products are marketed and the community’s response in buying them.

Of particular concern—and this has been raised many times—was the way that these attractive sweet drinks, be they the white based spirits that are in the pink and green alcopops or the dark spirits contained in the RTDs, were marketed to young people who were beginning to look at going into a drinking culture. These could be the way that they take the first step. Whilst it is very difficult in this case to point to particular evidence, this could be seen with the alcohol sales, the people who were buying them and the people who were seen using them. The marketing campaigns were clearly focused on younger drinkers—both male and female. Whilst much of the evidence that came before our committee focused on young women, certainly there was a focus on young men as well, particularly in relation to the darker spirits.

Through the series of committee inquiries, we saw examples of alcohol campaigns that were focused on young people. Concerns were raised by a number of public health associations and the Australian Medical Association about the marketing of very sweet alcohols—where the actual alcohol taste is blanketed—so that people start to use large volumes of these spirits without really understanding the volume that they were consuming. In terms of the public health message this was a consistent theme in all the committees in which I was able to take part.

We had within the system the identification of a particular product, which was a very high sales based product that is drunk by young people. That was identified by the government as a step to reverse the taxation treatment for that particular product which led to a wider ranging campaign on the evils of binge drinking and to raise awareness across the community about what can occur, what is a healthy rate of drinking and then to engage people in this discussion. For too long these issues have been seen as a wowserish approach to the issue or something that is done by people in an isolated way in health academia or as some form of punitive treatment.

Indeed, this is one of the hallmarks of the current National Binge Drinking Strategy, which has been implemented by the Labor government. What we are clearly trying to do is get people involved at the local level so that all these issues are on the table so that they can work with their communities to come to an understanding and identify what is harmful drinking and to work with the stats and figures that are produced by various respected organisations. It does not matter how many times people use the term ‘risky drinking’ or throw around the term ‘how many drinks are safe’. Until people actually own those issues and identify what is appropriate behaviour and spread that message, effectively, there will be no change.

One of the things that we had in the National Binge Drinking Strategy of which I am most proud was the number of community grants that have been made to organisations across the country with the theme of working at the local level to ensure that people are making their own decisions and are actually working effectively. I want to particularly mention one that I have been involved with, which is on the Sunshine Coast, working with some of the providers and outlets that are selling the alcohol, with communities, youth organisations and families to work together so that these messages can be provided. Within and as part of that structure the issue of alcopops is on the agenda. What we have to identify are the initial steps towards drinking and how we can actually engage at that time.

It is particularly clear that the updated National Health and Medical Research Council figures, which only came out last week, show that drinking amongst young people, particularly those under the age of 18, should not happen—but we know that it does. What we need to happen is for those statistics to be made real so that people identify their own risk and work towards coming up with a solution, not having it mandated from outside so that there is no ownership. One of the key aspects of what the government have come up with is a demand for an evidence based approach. It is particularly important that we work to ensure that we have effective data that people can agree on rather than what has happened consistently in the community affairs processes, which is an argument over whose data is better. Sometimes the exact same survey results are used to make arguments and are phrased in such a way that it is as though they are in two different languages.

The Department of Health and Ageing have given a particularly clear response to that question in their submission that they brought to the community affairs committee last week. We need to have some form of agreed database and some way of evaluation so that we can see what is working and what is not, so that the community can understand that this is not something that people will use for quick, five-second media grabs to make their own point. It is all too easy to use it in that way. You create an expectation, you throw around a few figures, and then that issue is finished and you go onto the next one.

We need to have is an agreed database. What we found in the community affairs committee inquiry is that there are a number of surveys that are auspiced by the government to gather information, key of which are the Australian Secondary School Students Use of Alcohol Survey and the National Drug Strategy Household Survey. Both of these are conducted at certain periods and the information then takes time to be collated and then publicised. Senator Cormann made comments about the fact that, within the 12 months, there is no absolute evidence that can be brought forward using the survey data to show that particular elements have worked.

The one thing that became clear for our committee was that the tax office figures on excise show exactly what alcohol has been bought by markets in the last period of time. No-one can argue with that. How that data is being used and how particular organisations can then say what has happened in their own market is subject to a great deal of debate, which we saw.

The department said that they need to design a specific RTD module for inclusion in the 2010 Australian Secondary School Students Use of Alcohol Survey and also in the 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey. When they have that data collected, there will be particular modules on RTDs so that we will be able to look specifically, on the basis of the survey results, at what people have said about their consumption, the harms and the risky behaviour.

There is also a series of national evaluation reports that are coming up in the next few months about the steps that have already been taken on the national binge drinking campaign. There is the advertising campaign and information on what has been happening with the community grants. They will be able to feed that information into the mix and see what exactly has been going on.

In 2009 the department is implementing a program that will standardise and improve the quality of alcohol data in Australia. Previously, indicators of harm have come from the National Alcohol Indicators Project, which was the sole source of high-quality alcohol related harms data at the national level. We need to update that and we need to have this particular database understood and agreed so that we will not have the wrestling around whose figures are better than others.

In 2009 the department will also commission a national drug and alcohol research organisation to develop agreed national standards for deriving alcohol statistics covering consumption, harms and, most importantly, sales and other relevant information. This will and must enable the derivation of more reliable trends that will add to a better understanding of the extent of risky drinking and the harms it can cause. This data collection is essential, but we heard from the public health groups during our discussions both last year and last week that it takes a long time to actually identify and see the results of any change brought about through public health initiatives. In 12 months it is impossible to come up with quantifiable data that can be used effectively to mount an argument. What we need is an agreement whereby, as one part of the national scheme, we closely watch these products to see what happens as the tax continues to cut in.

There is data that this tax has caused a lowering of the sales of RTD products. There is no doubt that it has. Where there is doubt is exactly where the sales have gone, and conflicting figures have been brought forward. The industry groups—the brewers and the wine industry—were very clear that they felt there had not been a ballooning of sales towards a substitute. As you would remember, Madam Acting Deputy President, when the prospect of this tax was raised last year a lot was made of the evils of substitution and how, as soon as people could not buy the alcohol in one form, they would turn to another. There was never any promise that that would not happen; in fact, there was an understanding that it would. What we need to do is quantify that and, most importantly, engage effectively with drinkers and with the suppliers of these products to see how we can best address the issue of unwise drinking. Different labels continue to be used. I do not think we are using the term ‘risky’ anymore; the latest information talks about ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ drinking.

There is no doubt that alcohol and the alcohol culture must be considered as a serious threat to some people in our community—not all. There continues to be the issue that, in attempts by some to make an argument, it has to be everything or nothing. We need to engage reasonably on this issue, work effectively together and not just be most concerned about our own particular market. The government stands committed to retaining these two pieces of legislation as one part of a wider strategy to address the horrors—and I use that term advisedly—of drinking in our community. We have seen examples of the effects of binge drinking when families have come before parliamentary committees to talk about the impact on them and most particularly on young people. The media certainly has a very large role to play in this process, and there have been various media reports about what is happening, particularly with young people and drinking. I think we need to be particularly aware that more people need to be involved in the process of considering our response to this.

I am very disappointed that there is not bipartisan support for this one element of our approach to binge drinking. It would be a great message for the community if we could work cooperatively on this issue. We can continue to argue about figures and we can produce coloured pictures and graphs, of which there are many, to our heart’s content. But the most important thing must be what we as a government will do within our community to develop an effective strategy to recognise and respond to the horror of drinking in our community.