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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 1535


Senator BILYK (1:43 PM) —The young people of Australia are the future of Australia. We as a government need to ensure that our future is looked after. We need to make sure that our young people have what it takes to keep this nation functioning effectively. That is why the Rudd government is acting on alcopops with the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and related bill: because we believe that, when abused, alcopops can cause considerable destruction to both individuals and society as a whole. This destruction occurs partly because alcopops are similar in taste to cordials and soft drinks, and it is possible to drink them without realising how much alcohol you have drunk—it is one of the sales pitches with regard to alcopops.

Our young people are not always equipped with the skills to make the best decision and alcopops do affect their judgment, as does any alcohol if you are not careful how much you consume. We need to help our young people to make the right decisions for their future as individuals but also for the nation as a whole. The statistics on young drinkers are nothing short of alarming. Binge drinking is a serious problem, and this is a concern not only for the Rudd government but also for police and health professionals. Parents of teenagers are also rightly concerned and want action from the government. The Rudd government is listening to the Australian people. After all, this is what the government is supposed to do. Binge drinking is a community wide problem that requires a community wide response. It needs to be addressed and it needs to be addressed now.

Alcohol is the second largest contributor to drug related harm in this country, with tobacco in front. Alcohol causes approximately 3,000 deaths each year in Australia. Cancer, alcoholic liver cirrhosis and road trauma are the main problems that arise from alcohol consumption. Younger people are more likely to succumb to road trauma or intoxication, while the older age group usually die as a result of long-term alcohol abuse. It is a fact that in the 25 to 34 year age group alcohol is the cause of more hospitalisations and deaths than all illicit drugs combined and certainly causes more hospitalisations and deaths than tobacco.

The other problem is that the distillers are taking advantage of young people, targeting these drinks right at them. They are in fact targeting young people with vigour. In the Senate inquiry last week I saw examples of advertisements, of the pretty colours of the drinks, and of Facebook and other websites that are aimed directly at young people, encouraging young people to drink these products. To put it simply, the distillers care more about their profits and little about the health and wellbeing of young people. We all understand that businesses must be profitable, but it cannot and should not be at the expense of health. This cannot be allowed to continue. The distillers have already admitted that their sales have grown by 250 per cent since the then Howard government introduced the tax break. The former, Howard government gave the alcopops industry tax relief in 2000, and since then the problems associated with young people drinking have increased dramatically.

The Liberals cannot agree on whether alcohol taxes need reform or not. Mr Turnbull on the Sunday program with Laurie Oakes on 18 May 2008 said:

… but is the whole system of taxing alcohol full of anomalies and inconsistencies and contradictions? Yes, it is you’re quite right … I think what you need to fix it right across the board … we’ve got to look at where the inconsistency are, how that system can become more efficient and have fewer anomalies of the kind we are discussing.

But Mr Dutton, in the Manly Daily on 25 November 2006, said:

Moves by Manly Council to change alcohol taxation and warning labels on bottles have been unsuccessful. The council wrote to Health Minister Tony Abbott, Prime Minister John Howard and Minister for Revenue Peter Dutton calling for the changes.

A letter from Mr Dutton’s office said the Federal Government was satisfied with the current system of taxation on alcohol.

Mr Turnbull, in an address to the National Press Club on 22 September 2008, running up the white flag on doing anything about binge drinking, said:

One should never underestimate the enterprising ingenuity of the Australian drinker.

So that makes it okay, does it? Tony Abbott said about binge drinking on 3AW on 17 June 2008:

Trying to say that binge-drinking is happening nearly all the time, in ways which are a deadly threat to the youth and even to the adults of this country, is a beat up, not to put too fine a point on it …

Nine years after the tax break was given, the current opposition do not realise the consequence of their decisions. Every week one in 10 children between the ages of 12 and 17 is engaging in binge drinking or drinking with high risk. Nearly 20,000 girls between 12 and 15 admit to drinking daily or at least weekly. This is horrific given that alcohol consumption by those under 18 is illegal in this country. Even the numbers of women between 18 and 24 being admitted to hospital as a result of alcohol consumption has increased since 2000. The increase has been dramatic—so dramatic that it has in fact doubled. It shows that alcohol related hospital admissions are an unnecessary burden on our hospitals. The Minister for Health and Ageing, Nicola Roxon, has released figures showing that there are approximately 670,000 preventable hospital admissions a year.

The harm caused by alcohol consumption may be as simple as falling over and spraining an ankle or it may result in lifelong problems or even death. Some of the harm caused is accidental, but much of it is also caused through violence as a result of people drinking too much and losing the ability to make good decisions. The Rudd government is working hard to reduce alcohol related violence. The physical harm caused is not the only harm that results from alcohol consumption. There is also a huge cost to the economy. In 2004-05 it was estimated that approximately $15.3 billion was the cost of dangerous alcohol consumption in Australia. It affects not only the health of individuals but also the productivity of the workplace.

Police are worried about the effect of alcohol on the community. In 2008 the New South Wales Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, estimated that 70 per cent of police matters while policing the streets involved alcohol. This is indeed a worrying statistic. In my own state of Tasmania 19 per cent of road deaths in 2006 were alcohol related. Research indicates that an increase in price plays a vital role in attacking the problem that is binge drinking. Higher prices make it more difficult for young people to afford the alcohol, and this in turn brings about a reduction in the amount they drink.

Australian tax office statistics show that in the nine months following the introduction of the alcopops tax, as it is commonly referred to, the sales of alcopops decreased considerably. They had decreased by 35 per cent when compared to the same period in the year prior to the introduction of the tax. This is a massive decrease in such a short time frame. Not only is this result wonderful but it exceeded the government’s expectations. It was hoped that the tax would stop the increase in sales, and modelling predicted that this would be achieved. The sales of spirits as a whole decreased by nearly eight per cent, and there has been only a minimal increase in sales of full-strength spirits. This is a reduction of around 124 million standard drinks overall, according to ACNielsen figures. This goes a long way to silencing our critics, who claimed that the tax would see young people turn to other drinks.

Numerous health organisations have supported the government’s tax on alcopops. They include the Australian Drug Foundation, the Australian National Council on Drugs, the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, the Public Health Association of Australia as well as the AMA. Dr Capolingua, from the Australian Medical Association, last week told the Senate committee:

The AMA would like to inform the committee that we believe it would be a retrograde step to remove the tax on alcopops. We support the alcopops tax in the context of broader measures to address harmful drinking, particularly among young people.

This government is not foolish, unlike the former, Howard government, which ignored reports it had commissioned despite those reports indicating that action was needed. But the alcopops tax is not all the government has done to reduce binge drinking. It is part of a broader process, and the government introduced a national binge-drinking strategy in early March 2008.

The funding for this strategy includes $53.5 million in order to combat the binge-drinking culture among our young people. There is $14.4 million being used to target community groups and local sporting clubs. This is being done because we know we need local solutions to local problems. The amount of $19.1 million has been allocated to early intervention programs to encourage our young people to take responsibility for their own actions. This funding is designed to target those under 18 who have already been involved in an incident involving alcohol, in order to prevent more problems arising.

There has been $20 million put into an advertising campaign to educate young people about the dangers of drinking and also the costs involved with drinking. This campaign is brutally honest, but it needs to be in order to get the message across. It is focusing on the short-term problems caused by alcohol intoxication and is encouraging young people to make better decisions. It is also targeting parents so that they are better equipped to educate their children and so that they lead by example with their own drinking behaviour. To have parents talk to their children about the responsibilities that come with alcohol use is essential to give our young people the information needed to make the right decisions about their drinking habits. The Rudd government stands by that campaign and hopes that, by the end of the two-year campaign, it will have made a difference to young people and the way they drink. This in turn will hopefully have decreased the damage caused by alcohol.

The funding from the alcopops tax is being used to engage in preventive health measures. On 11 March 2009, Minister Roxon announced that $872 billion is being spent on preventative health measures. The Australian government is working with state and territory governments through COAG to improve preventative health measures, and alcohol is one of the biggest issues being tackled.

The Preventative Health Taskforce is well on the way to developing a comprehensive strategy, and alcohol is one of its priorities. When the alcopops tax was introduced Minister Roxon stated, ‘This change will see the single biggest investment ever by a Commonwealth government into preventative health measures,’ and we have followed through on this to the tune of $872 billion. No-one can argue that the Rudd government is not committed to preventative health measures.

The young people of Australia are our future and we need to protect them to ensure a healthy Australia for years to come. There is a considerable problem with binge drinking among many of Australia’s young people, both males and females. We as the government need to attack this problem with everything we have in order to keep our young people—and, for that matter, the rest of the population—safe. The alcopops tax is one way to help combat the problem of binge drinking and is one of many strategies the Rudd government is putting into place.

The tax from the alcopops is being used to educate, to prevent health problems that arise as a result of alcohol consumption and to fund other preventative health measures. The Rudd government is committed to the health of Australians and will do everything possible to make sure Australians have the support needed to help them improve their health. The fewer alcohol related problems we have in society, the more productive and safe Australia will be. This is what the Rudd government wants for Australia and it is what the Australian people want for their nation. It is what the Australian people demand and deserve. I commend the bills to the Senate.