Australians are drinking 25 per cent less alcohol than they were 40 years ago, but it’s causing more harm than ever, a new study says.
In 2010, when the most recent figures were recorded, alcohol misuse was estimated to be responsible for 5500 deaths and 160,000 admissions to hospital a year as well as costing an estimated $36 billion annually.
The number of deaths had risen by 62 per cent from 2000 to 2010.
This might have been avoided if recommendations made in a 1977 Senate Committee report had not been ignored, a study by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), released on Wednesday, found.
The study assessed available data to determine the effectiveness of each recommended policy in reducing alcohol harm.
The recommended interventions, which were ignored, related to alcohol price, availability and advertising, which were found to have a “high degree of effectiveness”.
The new study particularly stressed a need for wine taxation reform, which had been recommended in the 1977 report. Currently, wine is subject to taxation based on its value, while other beverages are taxed based on alcohol content.
This loophole allows wine to be sold at extremely low prices.
“People who are hooked on alcohol use cheap wine,” said Dr Peter Baume, a retired physician and former NSW Liberal senator who chaired the committee responsible for the 1977 report.
“Excise rises have been very effective with tobacco and they’d be very effective with alcohol too,” Dr Baume said.
FARE chief executive Michael Thorn said “vested interests” in the alcohol industry had been successful in stifling tax reform over the past four decades.
However, the chief executive of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, Tony Battaglene, said: “There is no evidence to suggest that wine is a larger contributor to alcohol-related harm than other forms of alcohol and indeed [there is] much evidence to the contrary.”
Mr Battaglene said the wine sector “provides enormous regional benefits in terms of employment” and that tax reform would not resolve underlying cultural issues. Packaged drinks causing headaches
The FARE study praised the controversial lockout laws introduced in NSW in 2014, but argued that more needed to be done to tackle harm caused by alcohol purchased from shops.
The study criticised “neoliberal ideologies” that prioritised competition in the alcohol industry over public health.
A National Competition Policy report in 1993 resulted in state and territory governments loosening their liquor licensing legislation and allowing for increased availability over the past two decades.
The number of packaged liquor outlets increased by 38 per cent in NSW between 2008 and 2014.
This market shift has resulted in changes to alcohol consumption patterns with a move away from a tradition of drinking at venues to a situation today whereby 80 per cent of alcohol in Australia is sold at packaged liquor stores. Alcohol advertising and sponsorship
Governments are also not doing enough to restrict the advertising of alcohol products, the study said.
Currently, alcohol advertising is restricted to certain times and classification zones but there is a unique exemption for sport broadcasts.
“The broadcasters have continued to lobby successfully to allow for more opportunities to advertise alcohol products.
“Last year they were given permission to advertise alcohol during rebroadcasts of sports,” Mr Thorn said.
There are no restrictions on sports teams being sponsored by alcohol companies.
A survey of Australian children in 2010 found that 76 per cent of them could match at least one sport to its alcohol sponsor. Need for a national policy
The study calls for a national alcohol strategy. Australia has had three such strategies since 1977 but the last one lapsed in 2011.
“Politicians want to get re-elected. And they’ve been scared that they’ll lose votes if they’re tough on alcohol,” Dr Baume said.
“But they’re wrong. People also want to live.”
On Monday, a meeting chaired by Minister for Health Greg Hunt endorsed the release of a new “National Alcohol Strategy”.
The strategy will be be open for public consultation from December 11.
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