Alcopops tax misinformation should haunt spirits industry

Proof that the alcopops tax successfully reduced underage and harmful drinking should haunt the spirits industry, which misled the public and pretended from day one the tax was a failure. Alcopops, also known as ready-to-drinks (RTDs) are pre-mixed drinks whose alcoholic content is derived from a wine or spirit, which is then mixed with other additives and flavours to provide a sweet taste.

Researchers led by Marianne Gale have found the alcopops tax reduced hazardous drinking by young people, and reduced their attendance at hospital emergency rooms as a result of drinking.

In 2008, an extra excise was imposed on alcopops by the Rudd government to reduce underage drinking and harm among underage females. It increased the price of alcopops by $1. Alcopops were the favourite alcoholic drink of underage drinkers, and by underage females in particular. By 2008 the RTD market was valued at $2.5 billion – almost as much as the wine industry.

The spirits industry went into immediate overdrive to kill the tax. Over the next 18 months the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia (DSICA) made a series of astonishing claims that raises questions about their credibility. We’ve only got space to outline a couple of the biggest whoppers.

First, DSICA claimed the tax hadn’t worked because alcopops drinkers had switched to buying ‘straight spirits’. They claimed spirits sales had gone up, as alcopops sales went down, and people were drinking even more spirits: “more standard drinks — not fewer — are being consumed….” So spirits producers were complaining that sales of spirits had increased. Was that credible?

DSICA knew the claim was false because it had access to AC Nielsen consumer data. After the first three months, Nielsen noted alcopops had declined by 91 million standard drinks and spirits had increased by 35 million standard drinks, which meant spirits overall lost 56 million standard drinks in the first quarter. The public didn’t know about the Nielsen data results because it’s private, so DSICA could continue to market untrue statements.


But DSICA wasn’t finished. Then it said they were really worried because people who poured their own drinks from spirits bottles, instead of buying alcopops, might not know how much alcohol they were really drinking. Yet, for centuries, people have bought spirits and poured their own drinks, and the producers haven’t been much concerned. In fact, self-pouring is the business model, so DSICA had another credibility problem.

Then  DSICA dropped another ripper, that the tax was terrible because spirits are more potent than alcopops, so alcopops drinkers who switched to spirits might drink a dangerous amount of alcohol: ”…consumers opt for the more potent and potentially more dangerous drinks…” Yes, in media releases, on official letterhead, on behalf of global spirits brands, DSICA told the world that drinking spirits was dangerous.

So you would wonder, what had DSICA and the spirits brands done to warn their consumers of that danger? Had they run an advertising campaign? Nope. Had they suggested spirits drinkers turn to alcopops because they were safer? Nope. Had they taught spirits drinkers to be careful to pour a single standard drink, so they could remain safe? Nope. Ok, had they put warnings on alcohol labels to help people drink more safely? Nope. In fact, DSICA had resisted all attempts by health authorities to place consumer warnings on alcohol labels.

And once the alcopop tax was decided, did the spirits industry put warnings on labels, or teach drinkers how to pour a standard drink, or advise them to drink alcopops because they are a safer form of spirits?

You know the answer to that.

And now we know the alcopops tax worked as intended, to protect young people from alcohol related harm.