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Alcohol wrecks lives - when will we get serious about compensating victims?

By Keith Suter - posted Thursday, 18 September 2003


Some lawyers make money suing the manufacturers of cigarettes. Will they eventually be able to make money suing the manufacturers of alcohol?

The recent NSW Alcohol Summit was a welcome - if long delayed - official recognition of the dangers of alcohol. Perhaps Australia is now heading in the same direction as litigation over tobacco: an opportunity for the victims of the drug to sue the manufacturers because the manufacturers were aware of the dangers of their product but did not do enough to warn people about the dangers.

There is now some scope for the victims of smoking to sue manufacturers. There have been some huge payouts, not least in the litigation centre of the world: the United States. A similar pattern is now underway in Australia.

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This represents a major turnaround for the status of smoking in developed countries. After all, cigarettes used to be part of the official rations of military personnel in some countries. They were seen as a basic necessity, along with food.

Unfortunately some people still smoke - but there is no longer any official encouragement to do so (at least in developed Western countries). On the contrary, there has been a gradual tightening up on smoking, such as restrictions on where people can smoke and the warnings of the dangers they are running.

Wesley Mission had "smoke free" work places well before there was legislation creating such arrangements. The government has now caught up with the Mission.

The Mission has also long had a policy on alcohol-free workplaces. Perhaps the government will eventually follow the Mission's lead.

The American tobacco experience is that where politicians are scared to tread, the courts can set the pace. Anti-smoking groups in the United States decided that the best way to confront the lobbying muscle of the tobacco companies in politics, was to fight in a different arena: they started to sue the companies in the courts. The results have shown that this was a sensible decision. The courts have been less willing to cave in to the power of the tobacco companies.

If the anti-alcohol groups wanted to use the same strategy in the future, there is plenty of scope to show that companies and governments knew that alcohol was a dangerous product. Even the NSW government now recognises this - even if it seems slow to act on the advice of organisations like Wesley Mission that has been given over the decades.

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Similar evidence on the dangers of alcohol is available from New Zealand. Retired Wellington-based medical practitioner Dr Jack Salas has advised me that a previous Prime Minister lowered the age for legal access to alcohol to 18 years. Presumably this was to increase her support from teenagers.

It is now estimated that around 30 per cent of New Zealand hospital admissions may be attributed in one way or another to alcohol. Additionally alcohol gets many mentions in the legal system in relation to crime.

Therefore, there seems to be some scope for future lawyers to be able to claim that we have long known that alcohol is a dangerous drug and that victims should have a right to seek compensation for the damages done to them. A talk such as this radio script may be used as evidence in such litigation.

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This article first was broadcast on Radio 2GB's "Brian Wilshire Programme" on 12 September 2003.



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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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