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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 52

Senator BARNETT (1:31 PM) —My special message to parents and guardians at this precious time of year is to watch over your children, be supportive of them and be aware of the peer pressure and dark opportunities associated with underage drinking, which may threaten their health and long-term future. There are thousands of ways by which premature alcohol use and abuse could ruin the life of your child, and I am not only considering the health complications. Excessive drinking among young people can provoke lawlessness, drink-driving, road fatalities, drowning, assault, rape, unwanted pregnancies and damage to property, to name some consequences in the short term. In the long term it can lead to the social and personality breakdown of young individuals, loss of career, substantial personal debt, loss of friends, loss of humanity and, again, loss of life.

It is for these reasons that today I propose we as a community consider a national summit on underage drinking. I do so because this issue is a crisis confronting every parent, every police station, every ambulance depot, every hospital emergency department, the entire alcohol and advertising industries, social workers and law makers in Australia et cetera. It confronts all of us daily. I will come back to this proposal later. Firstly, I will present some facts about the problem.

Alcohol abuse is a great tragedy in Australia. According to the National Health and Medical Research Council it costs more than $7.5 billion a year in health costs, while recent studies show that it has been linked to almost 40 per cent of injuries, 34 per cent of homicides, 50 per cent of domestic violence cases, 34 per cent of cases of drowning and almost 50 per cent of assaults. According to research conducted by Curtin University of Technology's National Drug Research Institute nearly one in six of all deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds in the 10 years between 1993 and 2002 can be attributed to risky alcohol consumption. I am astonished by this statistic. According to research released by the institute last month, in the period researched an estimated 2,643 young people died in Australia from alcohol attributable injury and disease, representing about 15 per cent of all deaths in the 15- to 24-year-old age group.

In this period there were 77 deaths from risky alcohol consumption in my home state of Tasmania. That is 1.2 deaths per 10,000 in the 15- to 24-year-old range. There were 30 deaths in the ACT, 123 in the Northern Territory, 752 in New South Wales, 588 in Queensland, 350 in Western Australia, 507 in Victoria and 216 in South Australia. Western Australia had the second highest rate of alcohol attributable deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds—1.3 deaths per 10,000—while the Northern Territory had the highest rate, at four deaths per 10,000. The research also shows that 22 per cent of injuries that lead to young people being hospitalised can be traced back to risky drinking. For these young people, at such a delicate and impressionable age, the horrible scenario looming is that the younger they start drinking and then abusing alcohol the greater the likely incidence of alcohol abuse in later life, with the terrible associated risks.

Alcohol abuse among our young is indiscriminate. It knows no class or geographical boundaries, no race or colour, nor other ethnic differences. It is a sinister incidence of substance abuse that can embolden the shy and naive child while goading others to recklessly act out of character. The peer pressure accompanying drunkenness can be so great and so intense that the steadying influence of parents and guardians becomes paramount, in fact vital. So my message to parents is to be aware of where your children are and what they are doing as the schools wind up for the year, a hot summer comes upon us and the festive season begins.

It is disturbing that studies already done suggest a correlation between underage drinking and complications later in life. A similar pattern exists in the problem of childhood obesity. The earlier the age of initiation into alcohol consumption the greater the risk of substance abuse later in life. Likewise, you find it in children suffering from obesity in those formative years. They are 50 per cent more likely to remain obese in later life, at a time when the dire threat of middle age health consequences is greater.

The Australian Secondary Schools Alcohol and Drugs Survey, conducted every four years under the auspices of the Cancer Council, showed in a national analysis of data from the 1999 survey that, despite increasing attempts at school based intervention, the number of current drinkers among younger and older students was as high or higher than in any other survey year since 1984. For all age groups the proportion of current drinkers had steadily increased since the 1990s. It also showed that more children were starting to drink at a younger age. There was an increase in the number of 12-year-olds reporting regular alcohol consumption. Listen to these statistics: 20 per cent of boys—one in five—and 10 per cent of girls. Importantly, the average number of drinks consumed by students was also higher than in any survey since 1984. According to the alcohol awareness survey conducted by the Salvation Army:

This generation of drinkers starts younger, drinks more and indulges in binge drinking to a greater extent than any previous generation.

The Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy found that not only are there `more young people drinking alcohol but they are drinking at an earlier age and in an increasingly risky manner'. The National Drug Strategy Household Survey estimated that 1.2 million teenagers consumed alcohol in 2001—approximately 6,500 were daily drinkers, 460,700 were weekly drinkers and a further 730,000 drank less than weekly. One-third of 14- to 17-year-olds consumed alcohol to a level of risk on at least one occasion in the last 12 months. Many deaths and injuries occurred after young people became drunk from binge drinking. According to the institute, more than 45 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds exceeded safe drinking guidelines for acute harm at least once a month.

How should we deal with underage drinking and is there a role for governments in the campaign to protect or at least enlighten our children about the peril of underage drinking? In the 2000-01 federal budget under the National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy the Australian government committed $4 million towards a national alcohol action plan aimed at promoting and updating National Health and Medical Research Council drinking guidelines and developing partnerships aimed at reducing alcohol related harm. A further $4.2 million was committed to this work in last May's budget. In 2002 an extra $115 million was allocated for the establishment of an alcohol education and rehabilitation foundation to support rehabilitation, research and prevention programs and encourage responsible consumption of alcohol.

There is no question that governments are endeavouring to tackle the problem, but obviously this is a monumental challenge confronting us as a nation. Accordingly, I welcome the comments of my colleague Christopher Pyne MHR, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Ageing, in a recent National Press Club speech, when he said:

Ultimately, it is families that bear the responsibility for preventing teenagers from engaging in problem drinking, and it is families that stand the best chance of succeeding. Like it or not, teenagers will continue to find ways to get alcohol. The question is, will they be brought up with the self-restraint to deal with temptation.

That is not to say that government should be an idle bystander. Governments can and should assist, by funding research into the causes and effects of teenage drinking and running information campaigns to disseminate the products of that research to the broader community.

I have raised the issue and the recommendation that there be a national summit with Christopher Pyne and, like me, he has a similar concern regarding the problems of underage drinking. I appreciate his special interest in this issue.

I note that in its response to the New South Wales Summit on Alcohol Abuse in August 2003—300 public submissions and 318 summit recommendations—the New South Wales government proposed a strategy that was designed as an agent for incremental change rather than dramatic action. The New South Wales government's opening response to the summit was:

Improvements will come through a cultural shift towards greater awareness and responsibility, and any such change will be incremental, not dramatic.

... ... ...

... it requires a truly cooperative partnership between government, the alcohol industry, scientific and medical experts, community and professional organisations and individuals .

Taking these observations and responses into account, I believe it would be in the national interest for Australians as a caring and modern community to have a national summit on alcohol abuse, especially dealing with the problem of underage drinking. I agree with the New South Wales government view that a cooperative path with the industry players and key stakeholders would be preferable to an intrusive, high-handed, legislative approach. Having said that, the legislative arm of reform ought not be altogether ruled out having regard to what is clearly a developing crisis among our young children.

In my experience with the market and industry regarding childhood obesity I found major players such as McDonald's and the advertising industry ready and willing to consider self-regulation and similar reforms, and in the case of McDonald's more healthy options as part of its fast food products, along with nutritional labelling on their packaging. I congratulate them for being part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Over the past two years I have worked closely with the Australian Association of National Advertisers and other peak organisations in the preparation of an advertising campaign to combat childhood obesity and to encourage self-regulation through the establishment of a code of advertising to children. Based on that experience I am a strong supporter of this cooperative approach because more can be achieved in the long term than by a single, knee-jerk raft of legislative reforms adopted without proper consultation. I have had preliminary discussions with key members of the alcohol industry and they have indicated strong interest in helping to address the problems. They have researched the problems both here and overseas and considered measures to address the problems. For this I thank them and indicate my willingness, together with others, to work with them. A national summit would give all stakeholders ownership of the incremental reform process, and I would hope that the summit would be the beginning of a more dedicated effort by all those involved, particularly families, and a more consistent national approach.

Why am I advocating this? Because the statistics of high alcohol use and abuse by our children greatly disturbs me and others, especially the survey results of secondary school student use of alcohol in 2002 from the Cancer Council of Victoria. The statistics showed that in 38 per cent of cases the parents were the most common source of alcohol for the secondary school children surveyed, and that spirits in mixed drinks were the most common types of drinks across all age groups, with females the greater consumers of pre-mixed drinks. Clearly, there is grave need for an extensive awareness and education campaign.

There are obviously many facets of this crisis that could be aired and investigated by a national summit. I am clearly not an expert but I would like to say that the national summit need not be driven by government, although governments at all levels would no doubt be invited to participate. The summit could tackle a range of social issues and problems facing our children. It could be a milestone in national action for the sake of our youth. I commend it to the Senate and to all Australians.