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Popping the binge drinking balloon?

By Yeong Sassall
Created 09/05/2009 - 08:54

Popping the binge drinking balloon?
by Yeong Sassall

The Federal Government’s alcopops tax [1] 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 [2] and discounts [3] 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 [4] 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 [5] 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 [6] 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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