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It’s a thin line between choice and harm

A Senate Inquiry looking at measures introduced to restrict personal choice ‘for the individual’s own good’ is currently underway, and submissions are due 18 September 2015.

The Inquiry is looking at the economic and social impact of legislation, policies or Commonwealth guidelines, with particular reference to:

  1. the sale and use of tobacco, tobacco products, nicotine products, and e-cigarettes, including any impact on the health, enjoyment and finances of users and non-users;
  2. the sale and service of alcohol, including any impact on crime and the health, enjoyment and finances of drinkers and non-drinkers;
  3. the sale and use of marijuana and associated products, including any impact on the health, enjoyment and finances of users and non-users;
  4. bicycle helmet laws, including any impact on the health, enjoyment and finances of cyclists and non-cyclists;
  5. the classification of publications, films and computer games; and
  6. any other measures introduced to restrict personal choice ‘for the individual‘s own good‘.

This inquiry was instigated by Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm, who wants to do away with the government’s role in making laws to protect people from hazardous behaviour.

The Inquiry will hear a lot about the views of John Stuart Millbecause 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. Senator Leyonhjelm subscribes to the J.S. Mill principle that people should be allowed to do anything as long as they are not harming another person in the exercise of their freedoms.

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For GrogWatch, it’s not that simple. Sure, every individual has the right to choose what they do, but their behaviour should be based on an informed choice. Otherwise it’s not a real choice. If Senator Leyonhjelm had his way, government would leave education about alcohol to the alcohol industry, we’ve seen how responsible and truthful its alcohol advertising is. As a result, GrogWatch informs people about the harms of alcohol and encourages everyone to take action to reduce those 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 5,500 people die each year due to alcohol through accidents, road deaths, or long term illness. Some of those harms (i.e. 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 behaviour, if it harms them? 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? We think if people continue to disregard that ‘safe drinking’ message, and put themselves at risk, something more should be done.

No one said it better than Simon Chapman who wrote One hundred and fifty ways the nanny state is good for us in The Conversation in 2013. Changes to laws, regulations, mandatory product standards and public awareness campaigns have saved countless lives over the years.

Make sure you enter your submission to the inquiry now.