ABA urges a responsible approach to public policy

18 January, 2019 by Andy Young

This column was submitted by Fergus Taylor, Executive Director of Alcohol Beverages Australia, for the December issue of National Liquor News.

In his column Taylor said that 2018 saw us once again been reminded of the importance of having all the facts on the table when making policy decisions about alcohol regulation and for individuals to make decisions about what and how much they drink.

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Australia’s drinking behaviours continue to track positively. In August, the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed apparent consumption per capita was at its lowest rate since the 1960s. This evidence further supports the ongoing generational shift we’re seeing in drinking behaviours as people drink less but choose more premium products.

But we also saw two major studies published in the Lancet Journal this year where the facts and presentation were not quite as credible; one released in April which focused on all cause mortality associated with alcohol consumption and another in August which found there is ‘no safe level of consumption’.

Both studies have attracted significant criticism. The April study was found to have excluded non-drinkers, and therefore overlooked the widely accepted higher mortality of teetotallers which has been shown by the J-Curve.

In an analysis of the August report, renowned statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter found ‘the paper did not report any absolute risks, meaning that readers couldn’t tell how dangerous drinking alcohol really was for them’.

He also found that among non-drinkers 914 in 100,000 will encounter one of 23 conditions outlined in the study, while among those who have one drink per day, the number who will encounter a condition rises by four to 918 in 100,000.

When questionable information makes its way into the public and regulatory debates around alcohol consumption the consequences can be significant.

In Scotland and locally in the Northern Territory, well-meaning governments have relied on impact modelling from the Sheffield University in deciding to introduce Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) to tackle harmful consumption.

This modelling has been heavily criticised internationally for its reliance on inaccurate assumptions about the level to which problem drinkers will or can reduce their drinking as prices rise.

In Scotland, consumption has actually increased since the introduction of MUP with consumers reporting they’re changing what they’re drinking, but not reducing the amount.

In the Northern Territory there was a public outcry when the policy began because prices rose on a lot more products that had been expected or explained, and moderate drinkers on lower and fixed incomes were rightly angry they were being impacted.

With the right facts on the table these Governments could have avoided the failure and difficulty of population wide measures that don’t work, in favour of targeted measures that do.

Like the recent program run by the Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust in the UK, which focused holistically on the lives and support needs of 10 patients, who accounted for 499 alcohol-related hospital submissions in six months. This targeted program saw a dramatic reduction in admissions and bed days and is a successful local area template that could be rolled out internationally with the right support.

The vast majority of Australians are drinking responsibly and our approach to public policy should reflect this.