Pubdate: Mon, 13 Mar 2006
Source: Australian, The (Australia)
Copyright: 2006sThe Australian
Author: Ross Fitzgerald


IN 1977, Liberal Party senator Peter Baume chaired a crucial Senate 
report on Drug Problems in Australia. Subtitled An Intoxicated 
Society?, this report perceptively argued that, if drug problems were 
to be tackled effectively, all drugs, including tobacco and alcohol, 
would have to be dealt with.

But little was done until the declaration of Australia's modern "war 
on drugs" in 1985. After that year's drug summit, prime minister Bob 
Hawke and NSW premier Neville Wran gave doorstop interviews where 
they promised "wire taps", "border interdiction", more police: a 
clampdown on heroin. Unsurprisingly, they did not win the day. 
Victorian premier Jeff Kennett sensibly refused to sign up to a 
national campaign unless all drugs were included and only if 
prevention and treatment were given equal weight to law enforcement. 
The other states agreed. Thus was born the comprehensive and 
multilayered Australian approach to drugs.

A decade later, another prime minister added a further layer. John 
Howard announced his Tough on Drugs campaign which stressed, and in 
my opinion unduly emphasised, law enforcement. On the ground, 
however, better sense prevailed. This involved finding what worked in 
treatment and prevention, and testing this against the evidence; that 
is to say, learning from experience and critical reflection.

Up to now, Australia has done quite well reducing heroin deaths, 
keeping HIV/AIDS at a low rate, and now even cannabis use is 
declining. Indeed in these areas we are doing better than most 
countries. Plus tobacco use in Australia is now at its lowest level.

But there is an important piece missing. And it is the biggest piece 
in the jigsaw: namely alcohol with its massive social, medical and 
economic impact. The effects of alcohol misuse overwhelm the 
stretched emergency departments in every hospital, it burdens GPs, 
mental health units, social welfare organisations and justice systems.

In NSW last year alcohol fuelled the Cronulla riots and the upheavals 
in Macquarie Fields. Alcohol fuels myriad outbreaks of violence in 
our cities and suburbs and makes us all unsafe. It is easy to blame 
others -- the "riffraff", "rednecks", "ethnics", Aboriginal people 
and "today's youth" -- but alcohol itself escapes blame.

In Australia, as in Britain, politicians argue that mental health is 
the nation's most pressing health problem. Thus at the Council of 
Australian Governments, Howard and all the premiers have guaranteed 
they will deal with mental health by preparing a comprehensive plan 
to tackle mental health issues when next they meet. But the PM and 
premiers Steve Bracks and Morris Iemma have potentially diverted 
attention from alcohol by highlighting cannabis as the big problem 
instead of realising that society's biggest problem is booze.

In Australia, teenagers, especially girls, are increasingly bingeing 
on alcohol. Alcohol is directly linked to the main health problems in 
young people: depression, suicide, road and personal injuries, sexual 
assaults and other mental disorders. Adding to these immediate 
deleterious consequences are the long-term adverse effects on 
education, skill development and employment.

Those who suffer a continuing mental illness have lives shortened on 
average by as much as 20 years; 23 per cent of this is due to 
alcohol. Being dependent on alcohol at least doubles and perhaps even 
triples the risk of depression and other substance abuse; it also 
increases vulnerability to other mental disorders and physical 
disease. Up to 23 per cent of suicides in Australia are caused by 
alcohol and between 30 and 50 per cent of people who commit suicide 
have had a previous history of alcohol use disorder. Suicide is the 
commonest cause of death in alcohol-dependent people. Alcohol misuse 
penetrates family life, the workplace and the community at large.

Sadly, in relation to alcohol misuse, federal and state governments 
are pathetically unresponsive. We see an occasional summit here and 
an occasional plan there, but with insufficient or sometimes no funds 
allocated for effective implementation.

In the past eight years, the combined governments in Australia have 
invested about $2.2 billion in programs specifically aimed at illicit 
drugs. However, over the same period the same governments have 
allocated only about $50 million to deal with problems caused by alcohol.

What really takes the cake is that while teenage drinking is targeted 
in media campaigns, the federal Government picks up $200 million from 
underage drinkers through alcohol excise. Where is the public interest in that?

Who's pulling the strings? It's reasonable to suggest that the liquor 
industry and its lobbyists exercise undue influence on the federal 
and state governments, who should recognise alcohol as the nation's 
main drug of harm.
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