Australia's top medical experts throw their weight behind alcopops tax increase

Australia's top medical experts have called for the retention of the 'alcopops' tax and have wholeheartedly thrown their support behind the Federal Government's plans to reintroduce the tax.

The experts, all members of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), say alcohol harm has reached an unacceptable level and price is the most effective measure to control consumption and harm in the population.

Dr. Steven J Skov, from the RACP's Alcohol Advisory Group says there is good Australian and international evidence that taxation and price measures are among the most effective and cost-effective in reducing alcohol consumption.

But the RACP has warned against the money raised going to responsible-drinking promotion group DrinkWise, because the so-called independent body, originally funded by the alcohol industry, has too many links with the alcohol industry and six of the 11 current members of its board are senior alcohol industry figures.

The RACP says the money should instead be given to an independent public health body and they along with more than 50 other scientists and health experts, will not seek or accept funding from DrinkWise and have called on other researchers and community agencies to also consider their positions.

The Chief Executive of DrinkWise, Chris Watters, recently revealed the organisation's position on the alcopops tax, reportedly asserting that it did not recommend "fiddling with alcohol tax" because it was "old thinking" and that "the facts just don't stand up", and noting that DrinkWise funds many educational programs across the country.

In a letter published in the Medical Journal of Australia, the RACP says there is a clear consensus among public health experts worldwide that increasing the price of alcoholic beverages is one of the most powerful and cost-effective strategies that governments have at their disposal to reduce unhealthy alcohol use.

The RACP says current alcohol tax policy is unwieldy and not well directed towards improving public health and a proportion of tax revenues dedicated to alcohol programs would assist public acceptance of the measures, but a broad review of alcohol taxation policy is needed as part of a comprehensive approach to alcohol problems in Australia.

The RACP says absolute levels of harm due to alcohol in Australia today are unacceptable, particularly among young people - an estimated 3494 Australians died in the 2004-05 financial year because of their alcohol consumption - costing Australians in terms of alcohol-related health harms, lost productivity, and crime in 2004-05 as much as $15.3 billion.

In 2003, an estimated 3.2% of the total burden of disease and injury in Australia was attributable to alcohol.

In 2007, 37.4% of males and 41.2% of females aged 14-19 years reported consuming alcohol at a level that placed them at risk of short-term harm (e.g., being involved in a fight or a car crash, or engaging in risky sexual behaviour) in the past year. Just under one in 10 in this age group (8.8% of males, 9.4% of females) did so every week.

In the 10 years to 2002, an estimated five people aged 15-24 years died and 216 were admitted to hospital every week as a result of drinking alcohol. People of this age account for about 52% of all alcohol-related serious road injuries.

The RACP says reducing this level of harm should be a major focus of research and policy.

A recent review of alcohol policy measures found that an increase in the price of alcohol reduces alcohol consumption, hazardous and harmful alcohol consumption, alcohol dependence, the harm done by alcohol, and the harm done by alcohol to others than the drinker.

According to the World Health Organization experts, policies that increase alcohol prices have been shown to reduce the proportion of young people who are heavy drinkers, to reduce underage drinking, and to reduce per occasion binge drinking - higher prices also delay intentions among younger teenagers to start drinking and slow progression towards drinking larger amounts.

The RACP welcomes the government's announcement of substantial funding for a range of preventive health measures - apparently using alcopops tax revenue and say many Australians would probably support increases in alcohol taxes if they were confident that at least some of the funds went into alcohol programs.

The RACP says other actions should also be used to reduce alcohol-related harm, including reducing access (e.g., trading hours, number of outlets), enforcement of liquor laws, random breath testing of drivers, and national, well funded and ongoing social marketing campaigns.

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