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Popping the binge drinking balloon?

Popping the binge drinking balloon?
by Yeong Sassall

The Federal Government’s alcopops tax has caused considerable controversy since it was introduced in April 2008. As a bid to curtail the dangerous levels of youth binge drinking, premixed alcohol prices of drinks such as Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Breezer, were increased by 70 per cent. Amidst cries from the opposition, health organisations and the distilled spirits industry, the Senate held votes in April this year to reinstate the tax permanently. While the tax was voted down by the Coalition, the government won’t give up on it, and the debate continues. Research and data that both supports and discounts the tax measure has been widely quoted, and it seems the more you look at the issue, the murkier it gets. Just how do we assess the effectiveness of this tax?

A recent AC Nielsen report showed a 28 per cent drop in Ready To Drink (RTD) sales from April 2008 to January 2009, yet there was also a 14 per cent increase in the sale of spirits. Are young people just saving their pennies by upping their spirits intake?

And are sales figures really the best way to judge?

Dr Anthony Shakeshaft, from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) says that “We really need to get better data around not so much what people are drinking, but whether as a result of increasing the tax on RTDs there’s been any reduction in harm.”

Indeed, it is harm to the community that binge drinking does most damage, and NDARC is in the very early stages of measuring this in terms of crime, hospital and emergency department presentations, and traffic accidents.

Shakeshaft also highlights a really interesting point, that according to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey results, the group that “drink the most, particularly binge drinking, are people in their twenties, and mostly male”.

However, young girls are the main consumers of alcopops. In a 2003 study conducted by Roy Morgan for the Salvation Army, it showed that out of the 84 per cent of girls aged 14-17 who have drunk alcohol, 60 per cent stated that their first drink was a premixed one. Alcopops are said to be favoured by young drinkers, because the alcoholic taste is masked by sweeteners and artificial flavours, and thus they are very easy to consume.

While RTDs do encompass drinks such as Jim Beam & Cola, and Bundy & Rum, both of which are popular with young males, I wonder if targeting alcopops and young girls might be barking up the wrong tree?

Furthermore, if binge drinking is as widespread as it seems, applying only one strategic measure seems superficial.

Shakeshaft believes that while the alcopops tax is a good strategy for reducing consumption, “the problem with it is doing it in isolation as a kind of one-off strategy and expecting that to have an effect broadly”. Shakeshaft states that there is no evidence that education programmes and public health warnings have any effect on reducing levels of binge drinking. He believes that the tax will only be effective if it is done in conjunction with more drastic strategies, such as restricting the availability of alcohol after certain hours, reducing the number of outlets, and banning alcohol advertising altogether.

Personally, I don’t think we’re ever going to stop teenagers from binge drinking. Isn’t risk taking just a part of growing up?

In the Medical Journal of Australia, Yvonne Bonomo explains, “Experimentation with alcohol and other drugs is part of teenage psychosocial development, and it is not surprising that our youth explore substances which are so widely available in our community. Testing limits, both physical and psychosocial, is part of the process of maturation into adulthood.”


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What's wrong with revenue raising?

The government's broke and needs the money.

What's wrong with screwing it out of a cohort that doesn't vote? Adult drunks could be sober on voting day.

Delaying the inevitable

When it comes to serious national decisions like this all parties must come to an agreement to tackle this serious problem.

A tax on alcopops is one method that should be adopted, as the issue affects both current and future generations of the community. Obviously the money raised by this would go to other areas that focus on tackling this problem.

Bec Crew gives this example, "security and police presence in problem areas". In my own experience it would appear that an increase in drunken misadventures rise on festival days across Sydney where teens travel on trains and become more rowdy. This rowdiness also occurs on Friday and Saturday nights where I often hear the sound of bottles rolling around on train floors or wrapped in brown paper.

Having extra staff with the money raised by the tax to patrol the trains will reduce some of the problem. We all know teens will always find outdoor locations to drink like there is no tomorrow and would usually act quieter when approached by security on trains. I may also think that the issue of "too many cooks spoiling the broth" in Parliament is a factor in delaying a decision.

Things like binge drinking, vandalism and the behaviour of sporting stars hint at a far greater problem in Australian society that is not being addressed.

I agree when Chris Zajko and Bec Crew say resources and money should be re-invested into reducing the problem. I would disagree when Chris Zajko says alcopops tax will not achieve any significant results at all.

Areas where the money will work in combating the negative drinking culture include, the production of modern documenters created with the purpose of showing them to school children, in years 7/8 or even 6. I would go out on a limb here and say, why not even show shots of vomit and some poor bugger having to clean that crap up, windows being smashed with people ducking for cover, protecting themselves from flying objects like glass?

Another area would be in paying staff to patrol public transport areas on specific festival days, taxi stands, have a presence at sporting events even maybe having promotional staff on weekends, where parents take their kids to play sport will go to some way in reducing the bigger problem we presently have regarding binge drinking. Both Chris and Yeong Sassall have also stated ways the money could be used constructively.

Without tax money from the sale of alcopops how long would current advertising campaigns like the ones showing before and after shots of young people consuming alcohol which are currently featured on our streets on TV and published in various printed forms of media last?

I ask myself how else such promotional material will be kept being produced over the next few years without some of the money being generated from this tax.

Yeong Sassall: “Personally, I don’t think we’re ever going to stop teenagers from binge drinking. Isn’t risk taking just a part of growing up?

It may be so, but I believe it may possible to lessen the impact of binge drinking by finding ways to encourage the non abuse of alcohol and finding effective ways to address this problem. Without the extra funds such possibilities will take longer to materialise.

"Band-aid" solutions are not enough

Yeong, I think you've raised some very valid points here.

If the government is serious about curbing the negative effects of binge drinking, a much more effective strategy must be introduced. The alcopops tax seems like a thinly veiled revenue raising exercise to me.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert elaborates by saying:

"If this is not just about revenue raising we want to see where you are actually seriously tackling this problem. They have been unable to deliver that comprehensive approach so we can only assume that this is actually about revenue raising, not about genuinely dealing with alcohol-related harm."

I don't think the alcopops tax will achieve any significant results at all, especially considering the fact that teenage / twenty-something females are the biggest consumers of alcopops yet most problem binge drinking is associated with similar aged males.

Resources and money should be invested in education / awareness campaigns targetted at problem demographics or, as Bec rightly said, better public transport, security and police presence in problem areas.

The government should not be able to get away with imposing such taxes without instituting a relevant plan to spend the revenue raised. Some sort of far-reaching service must be provided to justify this tax.

If the government is taking our money, we should be given something tangible, honest and well-researched in return.

Conversing with the "S"bend

Alcopops is a specific issue, specifically to do with glamorising of alchol consumption and commodifying of a new market.

You can indeed get bombed relatively cheaply, but where's the Bradgelina "Je ne sais quoi" that legitimises and enables the behaviour, for a specifically targetted younger market needing inculcation in lifetime brand loyalty?

And that's all it's about.


The Marlboro Man did the same thing for my generation, glamorising and masculinising smoking for a generation of now-wheezing older blokes. Our sisters, of course, proved much more feminine using Alpine, Courtleigh and the like, until cost drove them down to Peter Jacksons, like the rest of us.

I packed in drink a long time ago, when the less glamorised  and unpublicised part of it  took over too much of my life. Doesn't happen to everybody; you can drink yourselves silly, for all I care, what's more.

But for me it failed big time, long term, except in terms of grief, so I've given it a wide, wide berth for a long, long time.

Were I to do drink nowadays, I'd be likely to buy a bottle of something cheap and pokey, a large bottle of cola and mix my own.

Accept it, and try to make it safer

Yeong, Yvonne Bonomo is right, it doesn't matter what the government tries to do to stop it, binge drinking will always be a part of growing up. What the government should be focussing their energies on is trying to prevent the accidents that come from binge drinking.

This means more late-night and convenient public transport services, more police presence on Oxford Street/Kings Cross on a Friday/Saturday night. Making alcopops more expensive to curb binge drinking was such an obviously futile exercise from the get-go.

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