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Challenge to Canberra to act on alcohol promotion to young people, open up on (de)funding decisions

If the Federal Government truly wants to act on its concern about alcohol fuelled violence – and allay public fears about industry influence over its health policies – then it has been given an opportunity in today’s recommendations from the Australian National Preventive Health Agency (ANPHA) to curb advertising of alcohol to young people.

How far the ANPHA will be able to pursue the recommendations remains to be seen, with the agency under threat of defunding in the lead up to the May Budget. There are also renewed concerns about the shock decision last year to axe the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia (ADCA) after almost 50 years of operation, with the Government accused of an ”appalling level of transparency” over the decision. See more details below from Drink Tank.

***

The ANPHA today released its draft report on a review into the effectiveness of current controls on the advertising and marketing of alcohol. Responses to its findings and recommendations should be submitted by Friday 21 March.

The report calls for the removal of an exception for free-to-air television that allows direct advertising of alcohol products before 8.30pm related to live sports broadcasts on weekends and public holidays, and for action also about the way advertising appeals to young people, particularly around online promotions and sponsorships.

Just as restrictions on tobacco advertising were decades ago, the exemption call is expected to be strongly opposed not only by the alcohol industry, but sports bodies whose clothing, equipment and sporting grounds act as billboards for alcohol products.

Others however have long fought against the exemption and today welcomed the move:

The National Alliance for Action on Alcohol (NAAA) urged the Government to act speedily on the recommendations, saying Australian families are “under siege from alcohol marketing, with children often seeing more alcohol advertising than adults.” Co-chair Professor Mike Daube said:

“This new report makes it abundantly clear that the Government should act to end the loophole permitting TV alcohol promotion through sport, and end the current charade of industry self-regulation.”

The ANPHA review was set up to assess whether the current mix of regulations (self-regulatory, co-regulatory and legislative) on alcohol advertising adequately protects children and adolescents (14 – 17 year olds) from exposure to alcohol advertising. In a clear critique of the effectiveness of industry self-regulation, it concludes that:

  • alcohol advertising and marketing is reaching children and adolescents and influencing them
  • the current system for protecting adolescents and children from exposure to alcohol advertising is inadequate.

“Evidence indicates that Australian adolescents are exposed to almost the same level of alcohol advertising as adults aged 18-24,” it said, noting that the exemption to live sporting evens meant current regulatory arrangements were not only failing to sufficiently protect children and adolescents but in some cases “facilitating” their exposure.

Health groups late last year launched a new satirical video (Alcohol Ad Shame) to highlight the absurdity of the exemption for live sports broadcasts, like rugby and Australian Rules football grandfinals, when large numbers of children and young people are watching television, saying:

“Research shows us that alcohol marketing on TV is saturating places and times when children are watching, particularly during sporting events like the NRL finals series and the AFL grand final. Sporting broadcasts are extremely popular with children, who watch them in greater numbers than cartoons. In 2012, 18 per cent of the NRL’s grand final broadcast contained some form of alcohol promotion and the 2012 AFL grand final featured a similar amount of alcohol advertising.”

The ANPHA says it has also found that current self-regulatory arrangements for the content of alcohol advertising (while improved) are also “failing to adequately protect children and adolescents from alcohol marketing which appeals to them”.

It recommended greater scrutiny and transparency and broader sanctions for the Alcohol Beverages Advertising (and Packaging)  Code – the self-regulatory scheme that controls much of the alcohol marketing content in Australia – including extending its coverage to alcohol branded merchandise and alcohol sponsorships. It also notes that adolescents currently experience “a significant level of exposure to alcohol advertising on digital and social media….(which) remain an ongoing challenge for regulatory response”, as this sort of sponsorship testifies.

Surveys point to strong public support for restricting alcohol advertising, however Federal Governments have been reluctant to act in the past on alcohol reform in the face of powerful industry lobbying.

The signs aren’t good under the Coalition Government so far, with the defunding of key public health groups and concerns about the influence of the food industry in decisions by Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash which are expected to come further under scrutiny at Senate estimates hearings this week.

***

Why was ADCA defunded?

This investigation by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education was originally posted by Drink Tank, and is republished here with permission.

Drink Tank writes:

The Abbott Government’s decision to defund the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia (ADCA) was sudden, swift and unexpected. Past and present Presidents of ADCA condemned the decision as ‘hasty and poorly considered’.

It’s true that when it comes to budget deficit reduction, the newly-elected Government has wasted no time in identifying and realising cost-saving measures.

Yet when it comes to providing answers as to why the Government targeted ADCA, and saw fit to defund a respected and valued peak organisation for the sake of very minimal savings, no such responses have been forthcoming.

Why was ADCA targeted? What was the considered rationale and grounds for defunding a national peak organisation that had played such a successful and pivotal role in developing effective drug and alcohol strategies for half a century?

It’s not just Drink Tank looking for answers.

On 29 November last year, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) submitted a request to the Australian Government Department of Health for documents under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act (the Act), asking for

…all advice from the Department of Health during the period of 7 September 2013 to 28 November 2013 to the Minister for Health, the Hon Peter Dutton MP and the Assistant Minister for Health, Senator the Hon Fiona Nash in relation to the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia (ADCA).

Speaking to Drink Tank, FARE Chief Executive Michael Thorn says the nature of this particular FOI request was extremely time sensitive.

“With ADCA due to turn off the lights for the last time at the end of February, the request for any information that would shed light on the decision making process is time critical”, Mr Thorn said.

In response to the FOI request, the Department of Health replied with a standard notification that the request had been received and that in accordance with the provisions of the Act, a decision would be made within 30 days and provided no later than 29 December 2013.

Ten days past the due date, it appeared that the Department was dragging its feet.

An email dated 7 January 2014 from FARE to the Health Department asking when FARE might receive advice on the decision was met with this response on 9 January 2014.

On 20 December 2013, the Department made a request via email to you for an extension of time to process your request.  As a response had not been received from you the Department, in accordance with section 15AC of the Freedom of Information Act 1982, sought an extension of time from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC).  The OAIC granted an extension of time until close of business 10 January 2014 for the Department to provide you with a decision in relation to you request (OAIC reference RQ14/00010).  The Department is working towards this timeframe, however due to a number of circumstances it is possible that this timeframe may not be able to be met.  I will keep you informed as to when the Department will be in a position to provide you with a decision when I am able. 

That might have been reasonable except for one small detail? FARE never received any such request for an extension.

FARE follows up with the Department and requests and subsequently receives a forwarded copy of the ‘missing’ email, which indicates the email in question had been sent to an incorrect address.

The incorrect address contained a space and a comma.  Could such an email have been successfully sent? No.

An email address contains three parts; the ‘local’ address, an ‘@’ symbol, and a ‘domain’ part. Email addresses don’t contain commas, however commas are used to separate email addresses from each other within the header field. As such, an email client would have automatically read the incorrect address as not one, but two separate entries.

While not the ‘correct’ FARE email address, the first entry would have been accepted by the email client as a ‘valid’ address conforming to the email address conventions explained above. However the second entry consisting of just two letters ‘au’ would have been rejected as a non-valid address.

It is highly unlikely then that, as allegedly entered, the message could have been sent by the email client in the first place. Even if it had been ‘sent’, it would have immediately bounced back, and in turn, the sender, would have received an error notification indicating message failure.

More correspondence: FARE informs the Department of its error.  The Department’s response:

I apologise for the error, due to current leave arrangements I am unable to confirm whether or not an ‘undeliverable message’ was received that would have alerted the Department to the error whereby attempts to rectify would have been made.

Notwithstanding budget cuts and summer holidays, are we really to believe that there’s not a single person in the entire Department of Health with access to the mail server?

The extension granted until 10 January passes, and still no advice is received.

An email from FARE sent to the Department on 13 January querying the further delay receives a reply three days later. On 16 January, the Department writes:

My apologies for the delay in responding to you. 

While the Department is continuing to work on your request, we were not in a position to provide you with a decision by the extended due date.  While I cannot provide you with a definitive date at this time, I will be in contact next week to provide you with an update. 

I would like to take this opportunity to advise you that due the circumstances the Department will not be imposing charges for this particular request. 

Far from a generous and conciliatory offer to waive charges, the Department in fact is not allowed to impose charges having failed to comply with the request within the time frames allowed. In the face of what appears to be continued stonewalling from the Department, FARE lodges an application for a review with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) on 16 January.

On 28 January OAIC writes to FARE stating that the Department of Health had failed to comply with the directions of the OAIC.

It confirms that the Department of Health is now aiming to finalise a decision by 31 January.

I understand that the Department has not acted according to the FOI Act so far as complying with the directions of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the due dates imposed by the agreed extension of time, however I think it is best if we deal with this once the 31 January has passed.

If you do not receive a reply by this date, I will conduct more enquiries with the Department. 

FARE agrees to wait a further three days, however the Department of Health’s self-imposed deadline also passes.

The following Monday, 3 February, FARE Chief Executive, Michael Thorn receives an email from Department of Health Assistant Secretary, Colleen Krestensen further apologising for the delay.

Hoping to get decision letter to you today.  Apologies for the delay – I know you were expecting it Friday. This has been an issue of coordination across the Department in the search for and release of documents.

If there is any further delay I will certainly let you know.  

The delay was in fact a short one. FARE received a decision from the Department via email at 3:39 that afternoon.

Unfortunately, that long overdue decision from the Department ultimately sheds no light on ADCA’s defunding, but rather raises more concerns about the defunding decision.

The Department identified a total of five documents as falling under FARE’s request.

Of those five, only one, identified asEmail to Population Health division – Notification of Ministerial decisions on grants/contracts/NPAs is released, but only ‘in part’ and so heavily redacted as to be rendered worthless.

In summarising the reason for the decision, the Department finds that releasing the documents was not, on balance, in the public interest, arguing that mutual confidence and trust between the Department and Minister must be protected.

FARE Chief Executive Michael Thorn says the decision is wrong and expects a subsequent appeal to the OAIC to overrule the Department.

This FOI request was made with the sole purpose of finding out why ADCA was defunded. The advice the Department of Health provided to the Minister is precisely the information we seek. My fear is that there was no thought or consideration put into this decision. If there was, the Department would be eager to put that evidence on the table,” Mr Thorn said.

 

Comments 1

  1. Trevor Kerr says:

    The list of NAAA member organisations includes several that seem to be specifically aimed at control of alcohol consumption. If I was in Govt, wishing to not have to do much in that area, or in the alcohol business, I’d be delighted with that list. It tells me that there is a diffusion of activity.
    Moreover, that ADCA (the “peak body”) was so easily wrapped up suggests it had little clout. Whatever influence that was exercised by ADCA will be quickly cannibalised by other, competing, organisations.
    ANPHA may see itself as the natural “peak body” for getting in the Minister’s ear about harms from alcohol, but isn’t it another organisation in the Govt’s gift?
    Any organisation in the alcohol field that receives funding from Govt ought to be looking at its own cost-benefit analysis.
    http://www.nationaldrugstrategy.gov.au/ isn’t much help.
    http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/alcohol-addiction-a-third-of-aussie-women-considered-highrisk-drinkers-while-many-dont-know-what-constitutes-a-standard-drink/story-fni0fit3-1226833976483 is pretty good.

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