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Alcohol policy and the Preventative Health Taskforce

In the November/December 2008 issue of the Wine Industry Journal, Winemakers’ Federation of Australia general manager of policy and government affairs Dominic Nolan wrote that there continues to be a great deal of discussion in the community and media surrounding alcohol abuse.

The announcement in March this year of the Government’s National Binge Drinking Strategy, the increase in excise on ready-to-drink alcohol beverages and the subsequent policy reviews and inquiries that the Government has announced, demonstrates that the Government has a major focus on alcohol policy.

The most significant of the reviews, in terms of health policy, is being conducted by the Preventative Health Taskforce, which was announced by the Hon. Nicola Roxon MP, Minister for Health and Ageing, in April this year. The aim of the taskforce is to develop a comprehensive strategy around preventative health focusing initially on reducing harm from tobacco, obesity and the misuse of alcohol by mid-2009.

In October, the taskforce released the discussion paper Australia: the Healthiest Country by 2020 which outlines the ‘case for reform in our approach to the prevention of illness and promotion of health’. It states that major changes are required in the way we behave as individuals, families, communities, industries, States and as a nation in ‘our approach to the prevention of illness and promotion of health’. It further states that the answer does not lie in short-term projects, but through urgent, comprehensive and sustained action.

The Winemakers’ Federation of Australia (WFA) is supportive of the stated intention of the Minister as outlined in the terms of reference of ‘reshaping attitudes and behaviours, rather than prohibiting them’. The focus for WFA is addressing problems associated with abuse of alcohol, rather than concentrating on per capita consumption. As a corollary to this, WFA will emphasise the unique nature of wine and the wine industry and particularly the contribution of the industry to more than 60 regional economies and communities across the country. The industry must, and does, accept that we have a role to play in addressing misuse of our product, but we must also present the overwhelming positive attributes of our product and our industry.

The discussion paper has identified several broad targets around reducing the prevalence of harmful drinking and contributing to the ‘close the gap’ target for indigenous people – that is reducing the 17-year life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people.

These two targets are strongly supported by WFA and emphasise the need for outcome specific, long-term strategies. ‘Reducing the prevalence of harmful drinking’ must be a targeted approach that discriminates against abuse rather than consumption per se.

The discussion paper identifies a mix of population and individual based strategies. The population-based measures are aimed at reshaping consumer demand towards low-risk drinking and reshaping supply towards lower-risk products and the individual-based measures include screening and effective brief health care interventions and targeted programs for those groups at risk. These approaches on their own are worthy of pursuing, but the discussion paper unfortunately falls back to simplistic, populist suggestions of taxation and advertising restrictions amongst the recommendations for action.

The issue of taxation is not, and should not, be part of the consideration for the taskforce. The Government’s major taxation review, Australia’s Future Tax System (the Henry Review), is the appropriate forum for issues surrounding taxation to be considered.

The taskforce strategy must ultimately be considered in the context of a holistic analysis of public policy and in particular the potential unintended consequences of proposed actions – the solution must not be worse than the problem it is intended to address.

Along with the Preventative Health Taskforce, WFA is contributing to a number of other forums that have been established by the Government to consider alcohol policy. These include the Ministerial Council on Drugs Strategy which is developing a framework on options to reduce binge drinking and will focus on responsible service, supply issues, alcohol advertising and warning labels.

In addition, Food Standards Australia New Zealand is looking at mandatory health warnings on packaged alcohol, as well as considering an application for mandatory pregnancy health advisory labels.

The Australian wine sector accepts that we have a responsibility and indeed a long term sustainability interest to produce, promote and sell our product in a manner that does not encourage excessive or irresponsible consumption.

A mix of individual and population-based measures are required to ensure that alcohol is consumed responsibly, but measures should be based on scientific evidence of their effectiveness and should not penalise responsible consumers.

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