DR JOHN HERRON, chairman of the Australian National Council on Drugs
Two years ago the Australian National Council on Drugs received a letter from the mother of a school child who was concerned by the fact that her child was bringing home promotional material for school fundraising involving the sale of alcohol, at the same time as she was trying to educate her child about the harms of excess alcohol consumption.
She asked what should be done. The President of the Australian Secondary Principals Association (ASPA) is an ‘ex offi cio’ member of the ANCD. At the time it was Andrew Blair and he was asked for his advice. He, in turn, consulted with the Association and the ANCD contacted other organisations for their views.
The response was unequivocal. Teachers were very concerned that, on the one hand, they were trying to educate children about the harms from excess alcohol consumption and, on the other hand, were asked to print, distribute and send promotional material for alcohol sales.
They did not believe that it was part of their duty and that it was counter-productive to their attempts at education. The ANCD has the responsibility of advising the Federal Government on policy related to the consumption of both licit and illicit drugs.
This includes measures to help change the culture of drinking alcohol in Australia. We believed that the matter was of sufficient importance to warrant widespread publicity and the ANCD embarked on an Australia-wide campaign to bring the matter to the attention of parents, school principals, teachers, parents and friends associations and the wider community.
With the assistance of Sheree Vertigan, the current president of ASPA, a public paper on the issue was developed and I wrote to all school principals stating that the ANCD believed that alcohol should not be promoted by schools or used for school fundraising.
Although it was controversial, we received overwhelming support with only one letter objecting to our stand from one of the wine producer associations. Publicists for the alcohol industry frequently allege that groups like the ANCD are promoting the development of a ‘nanny state’.
The term ‘nanny state’ has been used for over 45 years in reference to policies where the state is perceived as being excessive in its desire to protect, govern or control particular aspects of society.
The same term was used against the introduction of seatbelt legislation and random breath testing, as well as the advertising of tobacco products.
There is no doubt that Australia has a huge problem with alcohol consumption skyrocketing across all age groups. Australia’s alcohol consumption levels are among the highest in the world, according to the World Health Organisation. It is believed that this is primarily due to extended drinking hours, an increase in the number of outlets, increased competition between Coles and Woolworths, who are the major owners of retail outlets, an increase in advertising and promotion, together with an overproduction of wine leading to a decrease in price. It is now possible to buy unbranded wine that is cheaper than bottled water.
Professor Stephen Leeder in Australian Medicine (March 2011) stated: “Recently in New South Wales alone, paramedics were called on more than 1000 occasions in one year to treat alcohol-related problems such as violent vomiting and lost consciousness in people aged under 18 — most of whom required hospital treatment.
“According to the WHO each year 1 per cent of the Australian population is hospitalised because of another person drinking. Police records show that about the same number suffer domestic assault related to alcohol.
“Many more Australians are negatively affected by someone else’s drinking in the workplace, household or a public place. Like mental illness, alcohol problems in an individual spread like a fungus affecting many people around him or her.”
The overall cost to the community of alcohol consumption was recently estimated to be $36 billion annually and is now comparable to that of tobacco consumption — previously estimated to be $35 billion annually.
We hope that you will support and join us in our efforts to change the culture of drinking in Australia for the better.