Selling booze means your job is never done

Last week the Australia Liquor Stores Association (ALSA) released a report on Australia’s Changing Drinking Habits.

It’s an extraordinary document that claims cultural interventions by the alcohol industry are pretty much responsible for the decline in alcohol consumption in Australia in recent years. It’s ridiculous, not only because the industry spends a massive advertising, sponsorship and promotional budget, doing all it can to increase drinking, but if it were true, ALSA’s members would be up in arms protesting that the industry is committing suicide. But truth and logic aren’t the alcohol industry’s strengths.

ALSA’s report points to several positive trends regarding alcohol and related harms:

  • Underage drinking is declining
  • Fewer adults are drinking alcohol daily
  • Violence related to alcohol has declined in New South Wales
  • Per capita consumption is stable in Australia 

Grogwatch has already reported those broad trends and pointed out that it’s good news, as far as it goes. It doesn’t tell the whole story, because too many Australians are still binge drinking and engaged in chronic heavy drinking. Naturally, ALSA didn’t mention that.

But ALSA did claim that the decline in underage drinking owes a lot to its own members clamping down on underage serving by demanding photo ID of purchasers and by encouraging consumers not to buy alcohol for young people, as well as the industry’s DrinkWise education campaign. We know that cannot be true because underage drinking started to decline in 1999, before DrinkWise existed, so the DrinkWise campaign isn’t the explanation. We’re pleased that ALSA’s members have decided not to serve underage kids, but if that fixed the problem it means they were responsible for the problem all along. We recognise the alcohol problem is bigger than them, and it’s far from fixed.

The truth is Australians are sick of our binge culture and the associated problems: accidents and injuries, conflict, drink driving, violence, sexual assault, domestic violence, the list goes on. Similarly, parents are worried about the impact of early drinking on their children’s development. So they’re doing something about it. Many Australians are consciously trying to drink less – why else are FebFast, Dry July, Ocsober and Hello Sunday Morning so popular?

State governments caught up and passed secondary supply laws to give parents control over kids’ access to alcohol. The previous federal government increased the alcopops tax to hit the alcohol beverage underage kids preferred. And we do remember how ALSA screamed how unfair that was, and how the kids would switch to drinking pure spirits which were much more dangerous. Oh yes, that turned out to be untrue too. Jim Beam admitted to its US shareholders the alcopops tax had hit its Australian profits hard, because alcopops declined and the switch didn’t happen.

But ALSA can’t really be happy that consumption is stable. The fact is, the whole alcohol industry is worried by Australians’ drinking trends and is doing what it can to shore up our consumption, and to increase it. Our population is ageing and ALSA, like the brewers, distillers, winemakers, hotels, bottle shops, and the advertising agencies that are sustained by them, know that is bad news for them. People naturally drink less as they age because their bodies simply can’t tolerate as much alcohol, and many can’t drink at all due to poor health.

So where is the industry’s new market to compensate for the inevitable decline in overall consumption as we age? How about encouraging middle aged people to keep up their drinking? Sure, ALSA has thought of that. Its report highlights the 50% decline in daily drinking by people aged 18-24 and 30-39, and suggests their health might decline if they miss out on the health benefits of regular drinking.

This is an example of how the alcohol industry distorts scientific evidence. First, daily drinking is often a symptom of a major alcohol problem and health professionals usually discourage it. Second, the alleged cardiovascular benefit from drinking alcohol – which only applies to people at risk of heart disease – is captured at the lowest drinking level. One standard drink every two days is sufficient, and that’s hardly the basis for an industry revival. But drinking more than two standard drinks per day can damage the cardiovascular system and shorten life expectancy, and that is the risk we run if we were to encourage daily drinking.

It would be irresponsible to ignore the controversy over the alleged heart health benefit from drinking alcohol, as it is disputed by many researchers, and remains a matter of contention. We don’t expect ALSA or the other industry representatives to mention it.

ALSA’s self-serving report is a reminder that the alcohol industry has a different set of aims from those who want to moderate our drinking culture and improve Australians’ health and wellbeing.

So, what other tactics will ALSA dream up to encourage us all to drink up, and keep on drinking?

GrogWatch will be watching …