According to the liquor industry tightening alcohol regulations by toughening availability of alcohol in Western Australia will only serve to push addicts and binge drinkers onto other drugs.
A report into the prevention and treatment of alcohol-related harm released yesterday called for both the minimum drinking age and the cost of alcohol to be raised, while cracking down on liquor outlets, licensed venues and alcohol advertising.
The radical recommendations are in light of findings that show WA is the highest consumer of alcohol in the country and 10th in the world per capita. The committee report, titled Alcohol: Reducing the Harm and Curbing the Culture of Excess, found 37 per cent of West Australians drank to an extent that caused them short-term harm, while 12 per cent caused long-term harm. Last year, the average West Australian drank about 70 per cent more than the recommended maximum of two standard drinks per day, costing the state between $1.5 billion and $5 billion, the Education and Health parliamentary committee found. The committee criticized the state's liquor legislation as being weak and pro-industry, propagating a dangerous drinking culture.
According to committee chair Dr Janet Woollard, “The government has a tough-on-crime approach, we need now a tough-on-alcohol and a tough-on-enforcing-alcohol-legislation approach.” The committee proposed introducing a floor price per standard drink and lifting the drinking age to 21, or banning those under 20 years from buying takeaway alcohol. Premier Colin Barnett has ruled out raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21. Dr Woollard said such a ban would force young people to drink in a supervised environment, such as a pub or club.
But the liquor industry described the plan as “fanciful”. “We're talking about a group of people who are probably in a minority who over indulge in alcohol and if that's their intention they will find a way to source alcohol,” Liquor Stores Association WA president Lindsay James said. “They'll find a way to do it, whether it's alcohol or anything else. If they can't afford it they'll just go to something cheaper ... whether that's alcohol or white pills.” However, Mr James conceded increasing alcohol costs would see a decrease in sales. “But to have a decrease in sales you're saying they're not going to stop drinking,” he said.
Australian Hotels Association WA chief executive officer Bradley Woods also disagreed with the report. “The Woollard report contains deliberately misleading allegations about the AHA and the liquor and hospitality industry, which undermines public confidence and trust in the integrity of the parliament's research and committee structure,” Mr Woods said.
Former Labor minister Sheila McHale, now chief executive officer of Palmerston Association, one of the largest community drug and alcohol services in WA said the report was “on the right track”. She accused the liquor industry of being overly emotive to prevent legislative change. “People are protecting their patch and they're having it protected,” she said. “The evidence from public health is overwhelming; our community cannot afford to ignore that sort of advice, economically or in human life terms. Action has to be taken and people are going to have to understand that their patch can no longer be protected,” she said.
The Australian Medical Association of WA welcomed the report but president David Mountain was unconvinced that “dramatic” ideas such as increasing the drinking age would address the state's problem with excessive drinking. “[Increasing the drinking age to 21] doesn't have universal support even amongst physicians,” Associate Professor Mountain said. “There is some evidence that raising the age that people can drink does delay the entry into drinking and delays the harm. But it's very difficult once people have dropped the alcohol drinking age to 18 to raise it again.”