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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 1530

Senator WILLIAMS (1:19 PM) —I rise to speak on the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009. I often say to my children: ‘I didn’t just drop into this world at 50 years old; I was actually born as a baby and grew up.’ I lived in a country town where, as with most country towns, going to the local pub and having a beer, especially on a Friday night, was a common occurrence. Unfortunately, I have seen a change in behaviour, especially amongst young people, over many years where, instead of beer, spirits and much stronger drinks are being consumed. I see these habits as a danger, but today I question what real effect this alcopops tax is going to have.

One thing is for sure: when young people in particular are mixing their drinks themselves out of bottles of spirits and soft drink instead of buying cans of mixed drink, the elements of danger are far greater. I say that because a can of, say, Bundy and cola has a constant alcohol level of around five per cent. But, when young people—and often older people, of course—instead of buying a canned drink that has a constant alcohol level, buy a bottle of, let’s say, Bundaberg Rum and a bottle of Coke and mix their drinks themselves, here is the problem. You can imagine three or four young fellows sitting around in the car shed on a Friday night in some country town, as I know my son does at times, with one bottle of rum and one bottle of Coke. The first drink might contain half an inch of rum, the second might contain an inch and the third might contain an inch and a half. As they have more drinks it becomes, ‘Don’t worry about the Coke, just put more rum in.’ That is the problem with this legislation—it fails to stop binge drinking and is actually making the situation worse. Instead of consuming an alcoholic drink with a constant alcohol level, people are mixing their own.

When the government first proposed this tax, they expected about a $3.1 billion tax grab over four years. That, of course, has been revised to some $1.6 billion. I have here a graph which was part of the dissenting report by the coalition after the Senate inquiry into this. The mid-year economic forecast clearly shows that, even on Treasury figures, the increase in sales of alcopops will be around 7.8 per cent for the years 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12. Surely that emphasises the fact that the 70 per cent increase in this tax will not have the desired effect.

I was always a keen listener to John Laws. He said many things that I agreed with. One of the things he used to often say was that the more you tax something the less you have of it. That is true in most cases, but in this case it is not true because there is a substitute. If we had a situation where we only had the ready-to-drink cans, and some in bottles, more tax on that would certainly reduce the drinking level, but the substitute is that people can buy a bottle of spirits and Coke—whatever they are putting with it—and mix their own. A few months ago, I walked into a large liquor outlet in a supermarket in Inverell. I asked the young fellow behind the counter, ‘What effect has the alcopops tax had on your sales?’ He said, ‘There’s no doubt whatsoever that the sales of ready-to-drinks has declined enormously, but have a look at the Bundaberg Rum shelf.’ I looked around and the shelf was empty. He said, ‘We cannot keep the stocks up. People are buying the full bottles of rum, instead of cans of Bundy and cola, and mixing it themselves.’ This is not a solution to the problem, and that proves it.

I would like to quote some publicans I have spoken to recently. I spoke to an Inverell publican and asked the question: has the increase in tax on alcopops reduced binge drinking? This was his reply: ‘It has not had one effect on binge drinking. Alcopop sales may be down slightly, but people are now turning to buying spirits off the shelf and mixing the drinks themselves.’ He made the point, just as I have been saying: ‘With alcopops, at least people were restricted to alcohol content per drink, but now they buy a bottle of spirits off the shelf and mix it with soft drinks or buy a cask of wine, and there is no restriction on how much alcohol they pour in each drink.’ He has noticed people turning up to beat his hotel’s curfew at 10 o’clock at night a lot more affected by alcohol than previously when the increase in tax was not on alcopops. What he is saying is that people are drinking stronger mixed drinks at home and then going to the pub. I understand why people go to hotels, especially on Friday or Saturday nights after a week’s work, and especially in country towns where there is not a lot of entertainment and perhaps not a lot to do. The local pub is a meeting place where people socialise. I must admit I frequented the pub myself quite often in my younger days. It is a gathering place, but now people are showing up there a lot more intoxicated than previously—as I said, because they are drinking at home and mixing their own drinks.

A Glen Innes publican—no names mentioned—said sales of alcopops have slowed right down, but people are now buying spirits and similar off-the-shelf drinks and mixing them, just as I have been saying. The publican’s words to my office were: ‘The alcopops tax is not stopping binge drinking and they are kidding themselves if they think it is.’ Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation Director Ian Webster is quoted on 10 March admitting he was yet to see any evidence that clearly showed that the higher tax on alcopops had caused a decline in binge drinking. He said on the same day that he had not seen any evidence which had found a decline in alcohol problems in the community since it was introduced. The Australian Hotels Association has produced figures which prove there is no significant increase in per capita alcohol consumption to justify this tax increase. Current Australian per adult alcohol consumption has been steady for the last 10 years and is below the levels recorded in the seventies and eighties.

The Independent Distillers say the alcopops tax has not and will not work as it has pushed drinkers to stronger forms of alcohol associated with risky drinking. Risky drinking—that is the point I make. When they mix their own, they have a couple, it starts to take effect and then they mix them stronger. Here is a problem in itself. The Independent Distillers say the excise increase has moved drinkers from relatively low-strength RTDs, with an average alcohol content of five per cent, to drinks of between two and seven times that alcohol content. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey clearly showed that, in every age group for both men and women, those who were categorised as risky or high-risk drinkers chose beer, wine or spirits, not alcopops, as the drink of choice, yet the government is ignoring those drinks and taxing alcopops.

There is an interesting comment from a young lady who spoke to my office today. Many of her friends still buy alcopops, even though they are more expensive. She personally now buys the rum specials off the shelf and mixes them herself because it is the cheapest way to go. The question was put to her: has it stopped binge drinking? Not amongst her circle of friends. She said, ‘They are not drinking any less. In fact, they tend to get drunk more quickly because they are mixing their own.’ This is the point I make in this whole presentation: the 70 per cent increase in tax on RTDs may have, and probably has, reduced the consumption of those drinks, but it has led us to a situation where people are buying their drinks and mixing their own. As one company said to me, ‘When they buy a can of Bundy and cola they are looking at five per cent alcohol. When they buy a bottle of rum, a lot of times they only buy one bottle of Coke, but to mix that drink you need five litres of Coke to one bottle of rum to keep the same strength as in the can.’ This is a problem in itself.

Unfortunately we have a situation where many people drink too much. How do we solve the problem? Awareness and education—bringing it to people’s attention that if they are going to fill their brain with alcohol they will suffer the consequences. Just putting this tax on the ready-to-drinks is not having the desired effect the government sought, or was it simply a tax grab? That is the question I am asking. The net effect is not there. As I said, we see far too many people who have destroyed their lives with alcohol through addiction—and not only alcohol but many other drugs—but the situation is simple: if they do not want to buy the mixed drinks they will buy the bottles and mix the drinks themselves, and I think that is far more dangerous than the previous situation.

At that, I just say that the tax is not working. The tax has been gathered and put aside, and that money should be used for education, especially in our schools. We now hear so often of the 15- and 16-year-olds having parties. Just look at their situation. I know they are not allowed to; I know it is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to drink alcohol. But the fact is that they do get alcohol and they do take it to their parties, wherever they hold them. If they are buying bottles of spirits and soft drink and mixing them themselves, that is far more dangerous. We know that alcohol is a dangerous drug. We know what happens when youngsters who have never had alcohol before in their life go to a party and drink—they flake out, they get sick and they get into all sorts of trouble. I even saw a situation where a doctor was called to basically keep a young lady alive.

It is a tragic situation, but the tax increase of 70 per cent specifically on ready-to-drink beverages is not going to make one ounce of difference. It has been proven in the figures. I admit that sales of those canned and bottled drinks are down, but sales of spirits have risen markedly. This problem needs to be addressed through education, through going to our schools and warning the youngsters: if you fill yourself with grog, you are going to have trouble for the rest of your life. The addiction is real; the addiction is frightening. I oppose this extra tax grab because it is not having the desired effect.