It's Very Cheap, And It Costs A Lot


Nicolas Rothwell’s story about Alice Springs in the Weekend Australian two weeks ago has sparked a heated debate about how to address the town’s serious social problems.

Rothwell’s story vividly described the town’s current social tragedy, much of which is attributable to heavy alcohol consumption. It’s not too hard to lay it out. And it’s also very easy to focus on policy failures, omit mention of successes, and paint a picture of hopelessness in which allegedly nothing has worked, and where there exists no vision for a better future. While acknowledging the seriousness of the situation in Alice, I take a less fatalistic view.

As Russell Goldflam from the NT Legal Aid Commission has pointed out in New Matilda, the NT Licensing Commission’s supply reduction measures, in place since October 2006, have worked. Consumption in Alice Springs decreased by 18 per cent in 2007-08, and by 12 per cent in 2008-09. The restrictions include the banning of four- and five-litre casks in Alice and a limit on the sale of two-litre casks of (unfortified) wine and bottled fortified wine to one per person a day after 6pm.

As expected, beer quickly became the cheapest form of alcohol on the market between 2 and 6pm, resulting in a 70 per cent shift to it and a corresponding drop in pure alcohol consumption and related harm. The shift was undermined, however, as heavy drinkers learned to wait until 6pm to buy their two-litre casks, or cottoned on to the increasingly cheaper bottle wine.

The aim of the organisation for which I am spokesman — the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition — is the implementation of a minimum floor price for take-away alcohol, tied to the cost of a standard full-strength beer. A floor price would remove these loopholes and see heavy drinkers almost universally shift back to beer, reducing their consumption of pure alcohol by about 50 per cent. They would get less drunk less often and the damage would reduce. This is even more important for young people, who are very price sensitive, and whose brains are very quickly damaged by alcohol.

One of the big take-away liquor retailers in Alice Springs has recently expressed concern about the extent of grog-related violence in the town, and last week stopped selling the extremely low-priced wine commonly seen on its shelves in the past few years. The smaller IGA chain has also voluntarily imposed an alcohol floor price of around $1.20 per standard drink. 

Such actions are to be commended, but they will not work while some continue to sell alcohol at rock-bottom prices. For example Coles is now selling two-litre casks for just $10.99 — that’s 52 cents a standard drink.

The Opposition Country Liberal Party is meanwhile demanding the NT Government abandon the largely successful price-based restrictions. The CLP’s alcohol policy spokesman Peter Styles says he believes — an avalanche of evidence notwithstanding — that there is a "negligible" connection between alcohol consumption and violence. This is an extraordinary claim in the face of NT Department of Justice statistics that show a reduction in severe violent assaults alongside the reduction in consumption since October 2006.

Rothwell is correct when he says that the futile and misnamed "dry town" declarations and bans on drinking in certain locations have largely failed in Alice. These are not supply reduction measures, and are very different to the restrictions that have been implemented.

The Northern Territory will soon bring in radical reforms under its ‘Enough is Enough’ legislative changes. Alcohol will only be sold on the presentation of photo ID (this measure is already in place in Alice), and that privilege will be removed if it is abused. In addition, Centrelink recipients who abuse alcohol and neglect their kids, or who are violent, are likely to find their payments quarantined up to 100 per cent by an Alcohol and Other Drugs Tribunal. The Tribunal will also be able to order problem drinkers to undergo counselling, treatment and rehabilitation.

These measures are to be commended, but they should be combined with a minimum floor price.

Another approach that has been shown to work (confirmed in a recent evaluation of a trial in Tennant Creek by the Menzies School of Health Research) is a weekly take-away alcohol-free day tied to Centrelink payments. In spite of the evidence that this could further drop population consumption by about 10 per cent, this is yet to be implemented and faces significant opposition from key industry groups in Alice Springs as well as the local town council.

But supply reduction alone cannot completely solve all the problems. Useful as such measures are, they are not sufficient to ensure that young people develop in ways that make them resilient to becoming addicted to substances when they experiment.

The way in which inadequate early childhood environments affect the development of young people who then become impulsive, unable to concentrate, and lacking in self-discipline and control, is now well understood. Young people with these traits are much more likely to become addicted to drugs including alcohol. This can be prevented to a significant extent through a range of programs, some of which have been very recently put in place in Alice. But much more needs to be done.

Early childhood education and support is a key part of the answer, coupled with social consequences for parents who neglect their children in early childhood. We cannot afford to wait for them to become street kids in early adolescence before we act. Interventions at this stage are far more costly and less effective.

Alice Springs residents and leaders in the NT from all sectors should throw their weight behind some of these evidence-based policy proposals

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