beer taps in pub

Personal rights vs social harms

A town in country Victoria is currently fighting with its council to stop the introduction of pokies into the local hotel. The division is between those who do not want them to be introduced, in order to prevent the harm they cause, and those who think the individual should have the freedom to play them because they are responsible for their own actions.

The same argument occurs with alcohol. “Free markets” and “the right to choose to drink” are on one side, whilst the right to protect and “prevent” is on the other. John Stuart Mill’s views are much discussed in the media at present because he argued that liberty is the individual’s freedom to do as they wish, unless they harm someone else. Mill said adults can make their own decisions because they are rational, so government should only interfere with an individual’s personal decisions to protect society, i.e. other people.

But for GrogWatch, it is not that simple. Sure, it is the right of every individual to choose what they do, but it needs to be an informed choice. Otherwise it is not a real choice. So GrogWatch informs people about the harms of alcohol and encourages everyone to take action to reduce the harms.

We know through a wealth of evidence, surveys and statistics, that alcohol costs Australians $15-35 billion per year, depending on how the harms are measured. We know over 3,000 people die each year due to alcohol through accidents, road deaths, or long term illness. Some of those harms (e.g. financial) are borne by taxpayers whose interest is hurt by heavy drinkers choosing to drink heavily.

Don’t we have a responsibility to protect the individual from their own behaviour? Governments protect “others” from alcohol harm by drink driving legislation, for example, and try to protect drinkers by advising them on safe (low-risk) levels of use, so they can look after themselves. But is that all? GrogWatch argues if people continue to disregard that ‘safe drinking’ message, and put themselves at risk, something more should be done.

Last week the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education released its Annual Alcohol Poll. It included that 25% of Australian drinkers reported being unable to stop drinking once they started; 20% could not remember the night before, and around 15% reported drinking more than 6 standard drinks on a typical occasion. All of those people risk causing themselves serious harm and then drawing on the community’s scarce health and hospital resources. So (Mr Mill), it isn’t easy to distinguish between harm to the individual and harm to others.

Yet FARE was criticised by some usual suspects as a “nanny” because there was a slight decline in the number of drinkers who reported getting drunk. That is good news, but it doesn’t eliminate the reality that high proportions of drinkers continue to hurt themselves and the rest of us. We need to keep treating people for the outcomes of alcohol misuse but we also have to prevent it from happening at all.

GrogWatch supports all those groups and governments who are making a difference, who are working to prevent harm in the first place, whether through drinking or gambling.

GrogWatch wants to know what you think. Where do we draw the line between an individual’s right to drink as much as they like and preventing harm to themselves and others?