The Darwin-based Northern Territory correspondent for The Australian, Amos Aikman, recently visited Alice Springs. Whilst there, he reported NT Minister for Indigenous Advancement Alison Anderson's claim that alcohol is being sold illegally at outrageous prices in Alice Springs, including in a town camp: Sly-grog shops defeating police in Alice Springs (3rd March) and Time to name and shame on grog, says Aboriginal MP (4th March).
Aikman also ran the observation by town camp administrative body Tangentyere Council's CEO Walter Shaw that alcohol 'prohibition' was not working in Alice Springs.
Interest in the issue is welcome. The Peoples Alcohol Action Coalition (PAAC) has often heard reports about black market grog sales since it (PAAC) began in 1995. Such reports date from well before current restrictions were implemented.
PAAC has at times been able to get some illegal suppliers closed down. Whilst Aikman's report on the existence of sly grogging is no doubt true, it is no great revelation. The police are consistently vigilant about this issue, and do in fact charge people from time to time.
Aikman also reported that illicit sales involve $100 being charged for a bottle for spirits, $100 for a carton of VB, and $70 for a bottle of wine.
Since it is now well established that price is the principal determinant of consumption, especially amongst the heaviest and most dependant drinkers, the suggestion that alcohol sold at these prices could comprise any significant fraction of the well-documented problems related to excessive consumption in Alice Springs is absurd.
A recent report from the National Drug Research Institute has confirmed the very strong correlation between price and consumption in Alice Springs from 2000 to 2010. The fact that Aikman apparently hasn't considered this reflects the shallow and naïve nature of his reporting.
Minister Anderson would be right to be concerned about any serious growth of illegal sale of alcohol, if such growth could be proven. There have been fluctuating - usually low but sometimes higher – levels of illegal alcohol trade in Alice since at least the 1950s, and probably before that time. It would however be wrong to see this trade in its present form as anything other than a minor aspect of the overall cluster of problems connected to excessive consumption.
Compared to the harm caused by cheap cask wine being sold by the Todd Tavern and the Gap View Hotel for example (and the latter remains a purveyor of cheap bottles of fortified wine), the damage caused by illegal sales is likely to be relatively paltry, especially if the prices are anything like those quoted.
Aikman – or any reporter - should not allow their attention to be diverted by disproportionate anxiety about a few sly groggers, or fear of largely imagined rivers of illegal grog, when the real problem is much more about tsunamis of the legal product – sometimes sold at prices cheaper than bottled water.
It also only takes a bit of serious thinking to realise that town campers in Alice Springs are not actually subject to 'prohibition' as Aikman's March 4th article implies – and nor should this be the case.
Local town camp residents and their guests can spend pretty well as much time as they like drinking in the town's many bars and clubs, and at the local casino, so long as they have some money and are not 'drunk' as defined in the Liquor Act.
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