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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 4861

Senator SIEWERT (12:19 PM) —The Australian Greens have maintained a consistent position throughout this debate on ready-to-drink beverages. We have had a clear policy position: we were focused on harm minimisation; we were focused on a policy position where we agreed we needed to reduce the influence of alcohol on our culture; and we needed particularly to protect our young and vulnerable and to offer help and support to those in need. Our position is evidence based and is consistent with that advocated by doctors, public health advocates and drug and alcohol experts. We have developed our position in close consultation with such organisations.

We support, in principle, taxation measures that increase the cost of those activities that are incurring a cost for society, cause people harm and do damage to our environment. Such measures send a clear price signal about these things—that these activities are undesirable—and they also of course provide a source of revenue which can and, this is very important, should, be directed to reducing that harm. We all know what alcohol abuse is doing and the cost of alcohol related harm to our community in Australia. The consistent estimate is that alcohol abuse is costing around $15.3 billion a year to our community. There are also those—myself included—who think this is an underestimate because it does not include the costs you cannot put a price on such as the impact of domestic violence on families and the harm and stress caused to the families of those suffering from alcohol related harm.

Alcohol delivers to the Commonwealth approximately $7.1 billion a year in customs and excise—that is, before the introduction of this additional excise on RTDs, which it is estimated will bring in $1.6 over four years or $400 million a year. We believe that the government needs to be spending much more of this money on preventing alcohol related harm, reducing its impacts and helping those who are suffering. We have the evidence of what works to reduce risky consumption of alcohol. In fact, it also relates to issues such as tobacco and junk food. In this case, we are talking about alcohol. However—and we have held this position consistently—price in itself will not work. A price mechanism alone does not work. All the national and international research on this clearly highlights that you need to be taking a comprehensive approach in dealing with this issue. This is the approach the Greens have been advocating and pursuing the entire time of this debate.

I must point out to the coalition, who keep saying that there is no evidence that price mechanisms work, that they have not been reading any of the national or international literature. In past debates on this issue, I have quoted many pieces of research. But I will provide one quote from a recent statement by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, which said:

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.

That is from national and international studies. While I agree with the coalition that we should be looking not just at ready-to-drink beverages but also at the overall issue of alcohol consumption and make this part of a comprehensive approach to binge drinking and alcohol related harm, we also need to look at alcohol products. That would be a much more consistent approach to dealing with alcohol related harm and would solve some of the issues that we have been talking about, such as alcohol substitution.

One of the issues to do with RTDs that is particularly important and one of the reasons why the Greens support this measure is that RTDs are particularly focused on young people. There is absolutely no denying that these products are focused on young people. They are colourful and they are sweet. They are designed to introduce young people to drinking. That is the nature of the product. They are trying to get people to drink earlier in life, to start them drinking. One of the reasons for the sweetness, as I have said in this place before, is that when you are younger you reject the taste of alcohol. Sweetness masks the taste of alcohol but gets you drinking. Then, in the view of some people in the industry, you can move to other forms of alcohol. That is why the Greens believe that it is particularly important to focus on RTDs. Having said that, we believe that there needs to be an overall approach to the pricing of all alcohol substances as part of a comprehensive approach to the problem of binge drinking and alcohol related harm.

This comprehensive approach includes the tackling of the very sensitive issue of the alcohol sponsorship of sport and phasing that out, and I will come back to that; stopping alcohol advertising to children; taking a tougher approach to the alcohol fuelled bad behaviour of some of our well-known public identities; mandatory warning messages on all alcohol advertising and at point of sale; requiring prominent, hard-hitting warning labels; and, investing in early identification, counselling and rehabilitation. That is what all the public health advocates, doctors and drug and alcohol experts say we need to be doing—in other words, taking a comprehensive approach.

We do not believe that it is acceptable for the Commonwealth to apply a tax, thinking that that is all they need to do to address alcohol problems. I recognise that the government has some preventative health measures in place that relate to alcohol. We have clearly said—and I will state it again—that we do not think that they go far enough. We believe that it is absolutely imperative that we take this much more comprehensive approach.

There was some media very recently, and Senator Cormann mentioned this, around a recent increase in the sales of RTDs. The Greens believe that is a clear indication of why we need a comprehensive approach and why this excise should be part of a package of measures. Other nations have introduced the concept of a minimum price for alcohol. We believe the government needs to look at that as part of a comprehensive approach.

The Greens have said to the government that, while in principle we support this measure, we believe it needs to be tied to a much more comprehensive package. That is why we negotiated, along with Senator Xenophon, a package of measures which starts to address the issues around sponsorship of sport, mandatory warnings, warning labels and social marketing and provides a hotline to help with early identification and counselling. We thought that was at least a step in the right direction towards developing a comprehensive approach.

We know that there are very clear ties between alcohol related harm and binge drinking and sponsorship of sport. We believe a plan needs to be put in place that starts to substitute some other type of funding for alcohol sponsorship of sport. We need to promote public health messages, working with local clubs and community organisations to provide them with a choice in order to replace alcohol sponsorship. We need to identify and support champions and advocates who can talk about the effects of alcohol related harm. We need look no further than to some recent unfortunate incidents associated with the Australian cricket team and some of our football teams and the ruined sporting careers of some sporting heroes because of alcohol related harm. People say that we should not be interfering with alcohol sponsorship of sport, that it is not really having that much of an impact. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Research has clearly shown that there is a link.

You only had to look at Ricky Ponting on TV talking about the unfortunate incident that led to having to send one of our Australian cricket team members home. He was sitting there with a cap with ‘VB’ on it and with a VB symbol on his shirt. He was talking about the impact that alcohol had had on the cricket team, yet here they are sponsored by an alcohol company and he cannot make a statement about the problems that alcohol has caused without actually having the logo of one of the Australian alcohol companies on his clothing. That sends an extremely poor message to our community. We have to break those links. Australia led the way in breaking those sports sponsorship links between tobacco and sporting activities and we need to be doing the same with alcohol.

The government, as part of taking a more comprehensive approach, has agreed to take a very small step. It will be setting up a fund to which sporting organisations and clubs can go, on a voluntary basis, to try and start breaking that link between alcohol sponsorship and sport. We need to be very clearly changing the messages that we are sending to our children and to our community. That links to advertising, where we need to be stopping the showing of alcohol advertising to children and where we need to be making sure that we have mandatory warnings with alcohol advertising on TV, in the print media and at the point of sale. It is very important that the impact of alcohol related harm and the impact on personal health are highlighted to people consuming alcohol. We also need to be dealing with labelling issues and making sure that we have strong and effective labelling on alcohol products.

We also need to be making sure that we are actually collecting data. I believe that decision makers and policy makers do not have access to adequate data to enable them to look at what measures are proving effective. We need to be making sure that all states and territories are collecting alcohol sales data from licensees, that emergency departments are collecting adequate and appropriate data and that it is standardised across the country. During the Senate inquiry, it proved exceedingly difficult to get access to standardised and effective data. We need to make sure that we are getting access to appropriate data from the police on the relationship that alcohol is having on incidents the police have to deal with. We believe these data collections could be enhanced by an early warning monitoring system which regularly accesses data on consumption and harm among sentinel groups of young people at risk across Australia. There is clearly a lot of further work that we need to do on data collection.

We also believe it is very important that we establish early identification and support services—to develop and research early identification referral services for at-risk drinkers and so maximise the benefits of early intervention, particularly for young drinkers. As I said earlier, we need to very clearly identify the impacts of alcohol across our society. We have absolutely no doubt that just dealing with RTDs is not going to deal with the overall issue of alcohol related harm in Australia. However, it will go a long way and it will go a long way to addressing alcohol related harm to young people.

We believe we need to have early intervention nurses in emergency departments and referral resources for police, schools and courts. We need a single national drug and alcohol hotline number to connect individuals, their families and friends to existing state and territory drug and alcohol services. We need joined-up services offering a client focused approach to referral, treatment and rehabilitation in a timely manner. We need more resources for counselling and rehabilitation throughout Australia. This is a particularly important point in a comprehensive approach. We need to be making sure that we are offering those rehabilitation services.

We also need strong social marketing campaigns. There are already some programs. The government will be contributing more resources to social marketing. These need to be well targeted, hard-hitting messages focused not just on young people, although you need to be making sure that particular messages are appropriately focused on the particular demographic group that you are trying to get your message through to. We obviously need an evidence based approach and we believe it needs to be done by an independent authority—that is, no industry involvement. We need to be using that to promote the alcohol hotline.

In conclusion, we believe that it is absolutely essential that Australia deals with the impact of alcohol related harm. We need to be dealing with the $15.3 billion worth of harm it causes Australia. We need to be focusing on some of the revenue that the government makes out of the consumption of alcohol—over $7 billion. We need to be allocating a greater proportion of that to address alcohol related harm. We need our program to address alcohol related harm to be comprehensive. We need it to be addressing licensing, advertising, sponsorship, social marketing and access to alcohol. We need the program to be addressing that comprehensive approach. All the national and international research shows that. We need to be taking an overall approach to alcohol.

This is one measure that must be (a) part of a comprehensive approach but (b) the first part of addressing the issues around alcohol pricing. Alcohol pricing works as a comprehensive approach, but it does not work just for RTDs; it works for all forms of alcohol consumption. If we are going to try and reduce the level of substitution—and the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs showed that there had been some substitution, although the overall level of alcohol consumption had dropped—then addressing price across the board on alcohol products could also address that issue of substitution.

We also need to mandate advertising controls, because quite obviously the current system is not working. I have articulated this issue in the past. I am very disappointed with the approach that the industry chose to take to the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 [No. 2] and to the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 [No. 2], and to this measure. They actively sought to undermine the measure by putting on excessive advertising over this issue and then offering alternative, cheaper products and encouraging substitution. While the industry made a big deal of the substitution, they actively encouraged that substitution. So the data on substitution unfortunately cannot be relied upon, because of the active campaign that was put in place by the industry to encourage substitution by focusing particularly on this measure.

So we will be supporting this measure. The government have given us a commitment they are still prepared to fund the package of comprehensive measures that the Greens and Senator Xenophon negotiated previously with the government. We think that is a step in the right direction in terms of taking a comprehensive approach to dealing with alcohol related harm and dealing with RTDs in particular. So the Greens will be supporting this measure and appreciate the government’s commitment to the package of measures that we negotiated with them.