Recent articles in The Australian newspaper sounding the alarm about illegal alcohol sales in Alice Springs deflect attention from more pressing public health concerns, according to Dr John Boffa and Bob Durnan from the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition.
They say the harm caused by cheap cask wine being sold by hotels is a far greater concern, and they call for journalists and policy makers to focus on “evidence-based, population-wide measures that have the greatest impact on heavy drinkers, no matter what their race”.
When alcohol is cheaper than bottled water, there is a high price to pay
John Boffa and Bob Durnan write:
The Darwin-based Northern Territory correspondent for The Australian, Amos Aikman, recently visited Alice Springs.
Whilst there, he reported NT Minister for Indigenous Advancement Alison Anderson’s claim that alcohol is being sold illegally at outrageous prices in Alice Springs, including in a town camp: Sly-grog shops defeating police in Alice Springs (3rd March) and Time to name and shame on grog, says Aboriginal MP (4th March).
Aikman also ran the observation by town camp administrative body Tangentyere Council’s CEO Walter Shaw that alcohol ‘prohibition’ was not working in Alice Springs.
Interest in the issue is welcome. The Peoples Alcohol Action Coalition (PAAC) has often heard reports about black market grog sales since it (PAAC) began in 1995. Such reports date from well before current restrictions were implemented.
PAAC has at times been able to get some illegal suppliers closed down. Whilst Aikman’s report on the existence of sly grogging is no doubt true, it is no great revelation. The police are consistently vigilant about this issue, and do in fact charge people from time to time.
Aikman also reported that illicit sales involve $100 being charged for a bottle for spirits, $100 for a carton of VB, and $70 for a bottle of wine.
Since it is now well established that price is the principal determinant of consumption, especially amongst the heaviest and most dependant drinkers, the suggestion that alcohol sold at these prices could comprise any significant fraction of the well-documented problems related to excessive consumption in Alice Springs is absurd.
Minister Anderson would be right to be concerned about any serious growth of illegal sale of alcohol, if such growth could be proven. There have been fluctuating – usually low but sometimes higher – levels of illegal alcohol trade in Alice since at least the 1950s, and probably before that time. It would however be wrong to see this trade in its present form as anything other than a minor aspect of the overall cluster of problems connected to excessive consumption.
Compared to the harm caused by cheap cask wine being sold by the Todd Tavern and the Gap View Hotel for example (and the latter remains a purveyor of cheap bottles of fortified wine), the damage caused by illegal sales is likely to be relatively paltry, especially if the prices are anything like those quoted.
Aikman – or any reporter – should not allow their attention to be diverted by disproportionate anxiety about a few sly groggers, or fear of largely imagined rivers of illegal grog, when the real problem is much more about tsunamis of the legal product – sometimes sold at prices cheaper than bottled water.
It also only takes a bit of serious thinking to realise that town campers in Alice Springs are not actually subject to ‘prohibition’ as Aikman’s March 4th article implies – and nor should this be the case.
Local town camp residents and their guests can spend pretty well as much time as they like drinking in the town’s many bars and clubs, and at the local casino, so long as they have some money and are not ‘drunk’ as defined in the Liquor Act.
Most people staying on town camps also have access at least on occasion to the homes of relatives and friends amongst the three quarters of the town’s Aboriginal population who live in houses where drinking is not banned.
The prohibition against taking alcohol onto town camp leases is not motivated by racial prejudice, but rather by government’s (and society’s) responsibility to try to reduce the extraordinary amount of alcohol-related violence, injury, illness, death, crime and child neglect being caused or triggered by alcohol in those geographic locations.
These special measures must have community support in order to comply with the Racial Discrimination Act, and PAAC supports the application of special measures in this way.
PAAC’s main policy approach in this area however has been to emphasise evidence-based, population-wide measures that have the greatest impact on heavy drinkers, no matter what their race. This is the most important omission from the Australian alcohol policy landscape.
Special measures should only be seen as being additional to, rather than the substance of, good alcohol policy. They are ‘icing on the cake,’ but at present there is no real national alcohol policy cake.
Several overseas jurisdictions, especially in provinces of Canada, have implemented floor prices on alcohol. A recent article in the prestigious journal Addiction has shown that for every ten per cent increase in the minimum price, alcohol-attributable deaths fall by 32% – an extraordinary public health algorithm.
England, Scotland and Wales in the UK are also planning the introduction of floor prices, mainly to reduce the attractiveness and availability of cheap wine used by many young people for ‘pre-loading’ before a night out on the town. A floor price would also provide a bulwark against unhealthy and anti-social over-use of cheap alcohol by people with nothing better to do with their time.
Australia urgently needs a national alcohol floor price based on the price of beer. This would provide a fundamental structural hindrance to the excessive use of cheap alcohol by many people who are vulnerable to addictions.
Regions with higher than average alcohol consumption need further population-wide measures such as one day a week without take-away sales, linked to Centrelink payments.
If these two measures – a floor price based on the price of beer, and a day free from sales of take-away alcohol – were in place in Alice Springs, then the supply of alcohol would be less accessible to everyone, but would have a bigger impact on those who drink the most.
It only takes a little more thought to understand that the prevention and minimisation of serious alcohol-related problems in those who are not presently addicted (and minimisation of harms to the families of problem drinkers and the rest of society) is closely related to getting the optimal balance of availability, price, regulation, education, self-discipline and informed demand.
It would help the serious discussion of alcohol issues and realistic solutions if journalists were able to consider these factors when reporting on alcohol-related problems in central Australia.
• Dr John Boffa and Bob Durnan are members of the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition, Alice Springs
• See here for previous Croakey articles on alcohol-related matters
NB: Questions have been raised over the future of plans for minimum pricing for alcohol in the UK