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Is the new binge drinking campaign a backward step?

Dr Alex Wodak, Director, Alcohol and Drug Service, at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, says so:

“The Federal government’s recently announced national media campaign to reduce high risk drinking among young people is a backward step. Like many previous similar campaigns, we are promised that this education campaign will be part of a comprehensive package. Judging by previous campaigns, readers are advised not to hold their breath waiting for the other elements.

As Professors Wayne Hall and Robin Room noted in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2006 ‘school-based education and mass media campaigns’ are ‘ineffective ways of reducing alcohol-related harm’. They listed as strategies with strong evidence of effectiveness and cost-effectiveness higher taxes for higher alcohol beverages, raising the minimum drinking age to 21 years, reducing outlet density, reducing trading hours, [stricter] enforcement of random breath testing and licensing laws and [more severe] penalties for serving intoxicated customers. Hall and Room regarded school-based education and public service messages as ‘strategies with weak evidence of effectiveness’.
A 2004 comprehensive review of the prevention of substance use risk and harm funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health also found weak evidence for school based and mass media campaigns for alcohol. A recent international review backed by the World Health Organisation came to a similar conclusion.

Of course governments find it irresistible to be seen to be doing things in the alcohol and drug field. This is especially so when one of the major options, serious alcohol tax reform, is politically daunting though supported by very strong evidence. The Rudd government was right to draw attention to the serious health, social and economic costs of high-risk drinking among young people. The huge progress achieved in Australia in recent decades in reducing tobacco smoking shows just what can be done when the community and politicians support known-effective prevention strategies: David can (slowly) overcome Goliath. The tobacco industry used to be immensely powerful and well connected, just as the alcohol beverage industry still is today.

But sooner or later alcohol tax in Australia will have to be reformed, even if only on economic grounds. One of erstwhile Treasurer Peter Costello’s mantras was ‘alcohol tax in Australia is a dog’s breakfast’.”

Comments 6

  1. Victoria Collins says:

    Firstly, since the Rudd government flagged its intent to tackle the binge drinking crisis we have come to see it play out in the mass media, and be talked about from one side of Australia to the other. I think that that can therefore be equated to a success, of sorts. The alcohol industry is now in our sights, and there has been a sea-change in the general public’s attitudes to the issue. Where before it was viewed as a badge of honour to go out, get pissed and get in a fight; now we have an attitudinal change to binge drinking occurring.
    2. Increasing the legal drinking age to 21 will never work. Most have had their first drink well before age 18, and often their parents approve. It also doesn’t work in the USA.
    3. The government has attempted to increase the tax on alcopops but has been frustrated in the Senate. I believe they will take on ‘malternative’ alcopops next.
    Eventually I hope they just tax all alcohol the same.
    4. Reduced trading hours have been mooted.
    5. I hear every NSW Police car is now equipped with Random Breath Testing equipment.
    Maybe not enough to satisfy your high standards, Dr Wodak, but commendable progress on the issue has been made, IMHO.

  2. Melissa Sweet says:

    This comment is from Terry Slevin at Cancer Council WA:

    Alex Wodak is a bit right. If all the Rudd government (and the various state and territory governments) do to control alcohol related problems is run mass media campaigns aimed at adolescents and 20 somethings, urging them to avoid getting ‘untidy’ on a night out – this is a strategy that is set to crash and burn when measured against meaningful long term goals.

    The current crop of young people, like all their predecessors – seek to use alcohol as the lubricant for the unfettered fun they (and we) crave.

    But a few well chosen words of warning are of some help, no doubt to bring the story and the risks into perspective. If those words don’t come from mum or dad, then maybe something on the telly is worthwhile. Such campaigns might even serve to bolster the long ignored warnings from the oldies who are obviously so out of touch that kids need heed no advice from such fossilised life forms.

    And if the ads serve to shake up the real decision makers- politicians, policy makers, parents and average punters in the street – who are also the voters in the next election, then all the better. Once shaken, and given a real window into the weekly disasters so commonly the product of the multi billion dollar alcohol industry, perhaps some harder nosed action might follow. The alcohol issue is clearly a case of privatising the profits of sales of booze while socialising the costs of cleaning up the mess. In financially difficult times that is increasingly unacceptable to policy makers and the tax paying punter alike.

    The preparedness of the Rudd government to take on arguably the weakest part of the alcohol industry – the distillers – via the alcohopops tax is a good sign but only the first step. A full scale review of the tax system as applied to alcohol is a must and signs are there this will happen.

    A recent paper by Mel Wakefield and colleagues in the American Journal of Public Health pointed out the measurable effects of BOTH tobacco taxation increase AND social marketing campaigns in reducing smoking rates. Alcohol it could be argued might be a little more complex but the analogies are not to be ignored.

    The public health world needs to redouble efforts to ensure strong representation in any alcohol tax review to ensure the alcohol industry does not shut down the debate and get its own way.

    I’d argue doors are more ajar now for real reform in the alcohol area than any time in the last 20 years. The campaigns help, not hinder those discussions. If short term commitment to the campaigns are all we get – the opportunity is lost.

    If we get a sustained commitment to such campaigns – then that is a good thing. Such sustained campaigns can target more than just those ‘naughty kids’, and can depict a slightly more balanced representation of the effects of alcohol, beyond the glitz and glam of the James Boags campaigns and their ilk, and sports sponsorships linking the best of Australian heros with yet more booze. Thought might be given to how such campaigns can be run by those at arms length from government. Perhaps a group not so close to the subtleties of ministerial control and pressure. A QUIT of the alcohol world perhaps ?

    But back to the big picture – the combination of action, regulatory, licensing controls, tax and more is necessary to tame this destructive beast. And there is no doubt the beast has yet to really be let off the leash in what is set to be a very long and tough blue indeed.

  3. Melissa Sweet says:

    This comment is from Prof Ian Olver, Cancer Council Australia:

    It seems premature to condemn the Federal Government’s national media campaign aimed at reducing binge drinking as a “backward step” not supported by other alcohol control measures. While much more needs to be done to reduce the burden of alcohol in Australia, the ad campaign is supported by the “alcopops” tax – which has already reduced net alcohol consumption and promises to generate revenue for public health investment.

    The Government appointed a National Preventative Health Taskforce to recommend policy options for preventing chronic disease, with alcohol control one of three core priorities; the Taskforce has only recently published its draft recommendations for public comment – and they are very strong and evidence-based.

    More than 2,800 Australians are diagnosed with alcohol-related cancers each year and around 1,400 die as a result. So, while Cancer Council Australia will maintain the pressure on Government to adopt the Taskforce’s recommendations, the Government should get the benefit of the doubt for now for at least taking on the issue of tax reform in alcohol and running a campaign that aims to address a dangerous culture of binge drinking.

  4. Melissa Sweet says:

    This comment is from Wayne Hall, University of Queensland

    Alex Wodak is correct. The evidence for the value of mass media campaigns in changing risky drinking is underwhelming. Mass media campaigns are feeble policy instruments by comparison with increasing taxation on the cheapest forms of alcohol preferred by risky drinkers. And governments often prefer the easier option of a mass media campaign to express community concern rather than electorally unpopular measures that involve raising taxes.

    A couple of points can nonetheless be made in defence of the government’s approach to alcohol. First, they have increased taxation on one commonly abused form of alcohol. In doing so they have predictably been attacked by the industry for the use of a “blunt instrument” and by alcohol policy experts for not adopting a more consistent volumetric approach to taxation. The latter may be a little easier to consider if the mass media campaign can achieve the more realistic goal of putting alcohol on the public policy agenda. If so, older adults may be more inclined to see alcohol use as a problem and perhaps a little more open to arguments that increased taxation and reduced availability are appropriate ways to reduce its scale. These would be a welcome change after the previous government’ s refusal to see alcohol use as any sort of problem.

  5. Melissa Sweet says:

    This comment is from Professor Wayne Hall, University of Queensland

    Alex Wodak is correct. The evidence for the value of mass media campaigns in changing risky drinking is underwhelming. Mass media campaigns are feeble policy instruments by comparison with increasing taxation on the cheapest forms of alcohol preferred by risky drinkers. And governments often prefer the easier option of a mass media campaign to express community concern rather than electorally unpopular measures that involve raising taxes.

    A couple of points can nonetheless be made in defence of the government’s approach to alcohol. First, they have increased taxation on one commonly abused form of alcohol. In doing so they have predictably been attacked by the industry for the use of a “blunt instrument” and by alcohol policy experts for not adopting a more consistent volumetric approach to taxation. The latter may be a little easier to consider if the mass media campaign can achieve the more realistic goal of putting alcohol on the public policy agenda. If so, older adults may be more inclined to see alcohol use as a problem and perhaps a little more open to arguments that increased taxation and reduced availability are appropriate ways to reduce its scale. These would be a welcome change after the previous government’ s refusal to see alcohol use as any sort of problem.

  6. Alex says:

    Most Australians have tried alcohol at some point in their lives. I think the reasons for drinking may be for sociability or maybe relaxation. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious to me that young people are drinking for the purpose of getting drunk. The harms associated with drinking to intoxication are both long and short term. In fact, four Australians under twenty-five die due to alcohol related injuries in an average week (Department of Health and Ageing, 2009). The former Rudd Government wanted to turn these statistics around by putting in place The National Binge Drinking Campaign (Department of Health and Ageing, 2009) to prevent young people from these harmful risks. The Labor Government was right to identify the escalating problem of binge drinking amongst young Australians. Through campaigns, increasing alcohol prices and specific guidelines to prevent binge drinking, the Labour party is still raising awareness of the dangers of binge drinking by the youth of today.

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