Time for change

Dude, where’s my alcohol strategy?

Alcohol is quite an issue at state level. Over the past two years NSW has investigated the Provision of Alcohol to Minors; South Australia inquired into the Sale and Consumption of Alcohol and West Australia reviewed the Liquor Control Act 1988. Evidently there is a lot of concern across the country about the impact of alcohol.

Yet those inquiries get little help from central policymakers. At the national level there is a distinct lack of leadership – symbolised by the absence of a National Alcohol Strategy. The previous, sorry, current National Alcohol Strategy is dated 2006-11, so it is at least two years out of date. Originally published as the alcohol strategy for 2006-09, it was later extended out to 2011. So it is 7 years since it was written – and in the meantime the world has not stood still. In 2009 the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) produced new drinking guidelines, which are based on new research. The 2009 guidelines advises people under 18 not to drink any alcohol, reduced the ‘safe’ levels of drinking for adults, and applied these guidelines to males and females equally.

What is the value of a national strategy? Firstly, a national alcohol strategy alerts everyone to the need for action – it identifies alcohol as an issue requiring attention and points to solutions. You can bank on the alcohol industry not drawing policymakers’ attention to the gap. Secondly, national strategies are important because they provide a reference for policymakers throughout the country – in governments in the states and territories, in local governments, in non-government organisations, and in the human services professions and occupations. Without the attention provided by a national plan alcohol problems begin to slip under the radar.

The strategy for 2006-11 identified alcohol intoxication as a key issue and called for cultural change on Australia’s drinking habits. Last week the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education announced that over 50% of all drinkers exceed the drinking guidelines established by the NHMRC. Additionally, 15% of drinkers consume 11 or more standard drinks on an occasion at least once a month. Our deliberate ‘drunken drinking’ culture has clearly not declined.

The Australian National Preventive Health Agency (ANPHA) is doing a good job in contributing to a change of culture, but ANPHA can’t do it alone. ANPHA’s ‘Be the Influence program’ which provides funding for sports that agree not to accept alcohol sponsorship is a great innovation. It reduces the exposure of young people to alcohol branding and points to the future where sport need not promote drinking. However, ANPHA was never expected to take responsibility for an overarching national alcohol strategy that must also deal with issues of law enforcement and alcohol treatment services.

Australia needs a new alcohol strategy to place alcohol problems and issues on the national agenda. Culture change won’t be achieved by turning a policy on occasionally and then switching it off. It needs to be sustained.

What do you want to see in a new Alcohol Strategy?

It’s a good time to pass on your thoughts to your local candidates.