Preventing community alcohol problems: advocating for changes to the law

The record of community prevention around the world shows that it is possible to reduce the use of alcohol or drugs with concerted action.

We talk about achieving ‘cultural change’ which means the new behaviour becomes part of our everyday attitudes and actions. To be meaningful any change has to be sustained.

One effective way to make sure that change sticks is to have the law reinforce it.

Laws and regulations help to create community standards and require people to behave in accordance with the rules or face a penalty. Pressure from the community is vital for getting any new legislation introduced because politicians can be reluctant to make new laws unless they know they have public support.

Legislation has been important for public health progress on alcohol-related matters, including:

  • the age of purchase – only those aged 18 years old or older may purchase alcohol and they cannot purchase it with the intention of providing it to a younger person;
  • secondary supply legislation is in force in most jurisdictions in Australia – an adult cannot supply alcohol to a young person without the approval of the parent or guardian;
  • additional ‘responsible service’ conditions apply to secondary supply in Queensland, Northern Territory and Tasmania – meaning that even if they have permission to supply alcohol to a minor they must do so responsibly; and
  • drink driving – we cannot drive a motor vehicle while having more than a specified amount of alcohol in our bloodstream.

While many people take these laws for granted, all of them were introduced within living memory. It’s also worth noting that those laws had to be hard fought for.

In 1969 a Parliamentary Committee in Victoria recommended fitting of seat belts in motorcars. The Premier of Victoria opposed the recommendation as an infringement of personal liberty. A few years earlier, in 1961, one of his ministers introduced legislation for police to breath test drivers in accidents where the police thought alcohol was a factor. The breath test idea was opposed by the legal profession- the Law Institute and the Bar Council- as well as by the Australian Labor Party.

It is not easy to introduce socially responsible legislation, but when it is done, we wonder why it took so long.

In recent years we have seen a law introduced to protect young people from alcohol-related harm due to campaigning from a lone community member. That person was Bruce Clark, a dad from Melton, Victoria, who was incensed when his son Leigh died in 1999 after being given a massive amount of alcohol by a person he had never met. Over the next decade Bruce wrote countless letters to and met with politicians, he gave myriad interviews to the media including major national magazines and he spoke at many community forums.

Bruce Clark campaigned on this issue to no avail until 2011 when the Baillieu Liberal government finally acted and gave parents the right to control their children’s access to alcohol.

Community members know their communities best and have a huge opportunity to affect change. But there is no denying that prevention can be challenging. As Bruce Clark knows better than most – results aren’t seen immediately and enthusiasm can wane over time.

But it works.

It’s our job to make sure we continue to beat the prevention drum loud and proud. There are many senior people in politics, academia, public policy and the media who know that prevention is always better and more effective than cure. We need to make sure they know we’re supporting them.

Grogwatch wants to know – how are you supporting the prevention of alcohol and drug problems in your community? Comment below or send Grogwatch an email.


The Australian Drug Foundation has produced resources to help you with community alcohol and drug prevention projects in your community:

The Australian Drug Foundation’s National Policy Manager and prevention expert Geoff Munro will lead a workshop “Community prevention of alcohol harms: what is doable and useful with limited resources?” at the upcoming Australian Winter School.