Alcohol policy is one of the severest tests of a government’s will to serve the public interest. There are such tempting reasons to ignore the otherwise compelling arguments in favour of public health, safety and order: tax revenues from a vibrant alcohol economy, generous donations to party funds from industry groups and also the belief that being soft on alcohol will win votes. Room’s savage critique of the UK Government’s Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England and of its moves to relax UK licensing laws suggests it has failed the alcohol policy test badly.
Australia also has an election in the air. The 2004/5 federal budget confirmed this: $440 million allocated to a National Illicit Drugs Campaign over 4 years, $4 million to an Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy and $360 million given back to wine producers in tax exemptions. Sound familiar? Yes, but at least we have a legal blood alcohol level in all states and territories of 0.05% enforced for the most part by rigorous random breath testing, tax incentives for low strength beers (there are almost 40 varieties with an alcoholic strength of less than 3.8% by volume) and state liquor laws that nod in the direction of public health and safety. This may partly explain why the UK has sky-rocketed up the per capita consumption league table from 21st in 1999 to 9th in 2004 (World Advertising Research Centre, 2004) while Australia has slipped from 19th to 23rd. Since 1980 alcohol consumption in the UK has increased by 31% while it has fallen by 24% in Australia. While per capita consumption is a rather mixed indicator, meaning tax revenue, profits and jobs to some, in Australia alcohol-caused deaths and hospitalizations have also decreased substantially since 1990 (Chikritzhs et al, 2003). Is anyone watching in the UK?
Room documents the failure of the UK’s new alcohol policies to resemble in any those supported by research evidence (e.g. Babor et al, 2003). It also appears there were deliberate attempts to deceive the public by excluding evidence that was inconsistent with the government’s position. A recent BBC TV Panorama special (6 June 2004) revealed that references to international studies showing adverse effects from increased alcohol present in earlier drafts were dropped from the final text. One such was a West Australian study showing that longer trading hours had doubled violent incidents at late night venues (Chikritzhs and Stockwell, 2002).
In a democracy it is obviously insufficient for there to be evidence that a particular policy will work for it to be implemented. However, in a healthy democracy, the facts about a problem and the relative merits of different solutions should at least be available for public scrutiny. There should also be active efforts by the government to listen to expert advice and to test community opinion on this without interference from parties with commercial vested interests. There are many evidence-based alcohol policies which enjoy strong public opinion (e.g. AIHW, 2002) but a democratic system in which policies and politicians can be bought does not produce governments that will listen.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2002) 2001 National Drug Strategy Household Survey: First results. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Babor, T., Caetano, R., Casswell, S., Edwards, G., Giesbrecht, N., Hill, L., Holder, H., Homel, R., Osterberg, E., Rehm, J., Room, R. and Rossow, I. (2003) Alcohol: No ordinary commodity – research and public policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chikritzhs, T. and Stockwell, T.R. (2002). The impact of later trading hours for Australian public houses (hotels) on levels of violence. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 63, (5), pp. 591-599.
Chikritzhs, T., Catalano, P., Stockwell, T.R., Donath, S., Ngo, H.T., Young, D.J. and Matthews, S. (2003). Australian Alcohol Indicators, 1990-2001; patterns of alcohol use and related harms for Australian states and territories. National Drug Research Institute and Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre Inc. National Drug Research Institute, Perth, Western Australia.
World Advertising Research Center (2004) World Drink Trends 2004. Oxfordshire: World Advertising Research Center Ltd.