If you happen to be cleaning up after a party that included a lot of young revellers, you might notice a curious fact. You’ll be cleaning up surprisingly few cigarette butts, but you will pick up a lot of empty alcopops, beer and wine bottles and cans.
This is because over the last 20 to 30 years we’ve done a good job in reducing rates of smoking in young people. In fact the last Australian Secondary Schools Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) study shows that we have the lowest levels ever recorded for young people smoking. For 12-15 year-olds it has dropped from 22 to 8 per cent in the last 20 years.
On the other hand we have witnessed startling increases in harmful drinking over exactly the same period. The same ASSAD study shows that if you thought binge drinking hasn’t really changed, then think again. Rates of short-term harmful drinking have increased for children aged 12 to 17.
And we are witnessing a new form of “extreme” or “oblivion” drinking. The latest Victorian Youth Alcohol Drug Survey (VYADS) survey shows that every week, more than 7 per cent of young men drink more than 20 standard drinks in a day. This generation of drinkers starts younger, drinks more and indulges in binge drinking more than any previous generation.
As Health Minister Bronwyn Pike highlighted not long ago, alcohol-related admissions to Victorian hospital emergency departments have increased by 35 per cent in five years. These are injuries and deaths from domestic violence, bashings in the street, road crashes, drownings and fires, let alone the internal organ damage resulting from chronic alcohol abuse.
Boozing costs our economy a lot of money. A recent study showed alcohol-related absenteeism cost Australia $1.2 billion annually; far greater than had ever been reported previously. And it’s not just the chronic drinkers that take sickies - more than half the cost burden was attributed to binge drinking by “low-risk” drinkers and those who infrequently drink heavily.
Ask drug and alcohol workers what the biggest problem is and they will tell you its alcohol. Ask the average person in the street and they will say heroin, or speed or cannabis.
This doesn’t mean that illicit and prescription drug problems aren’t significant, it just means that we completely under-estimate the increased damage big-time boozing is doing to our health and wellbeing.
Why are smoking rates going down and boozing rates going up? Well, with tobacco we’ve funded and supported long-term, consistent approaches with bans on advertising, sponsorship and promotions, combined with regulation of where people can smoke. We have had 30 years of powerful and effective counter advertising led by QUIT and others. The tactics of the tobacco companies have been exposed and rightfully vilified.
We seem to have gone the other way with booze. De-regulation has been the catch cry across Australia over the last 20 years. Liquor licences in Victoria have boomed and have gone from less than 4,000 in 1984, when we worried about being labelled as wowsers, to almost 17,000 today. That’s almost two new grog licences per day, every day, for the last 22 years.
Opening and selling hours have been de-regulated and promotion and advertising has increased. Booze advertising is a rapidly growing market and goes up by $15 million each year - and it’s very clever. Take the cricket. VB and Boony - it is a very smart ruse as David Boon was a great cricketer. But he is as well remembered for knocking off 52 tinnies on a flight to London as he is for knocking off centuries - and that’s why he has been chosen to promote the brand.
The alcohol companies and their advertisers are ingenious. Take the case of a new beer aimed at young men. The company introduced a souvenir mini-surfboard with the beer logo on it and gave it to hotels to help promote the beer. But they didn’t even tell the hoteliers that they didn’t want them given away. They wanted the 18-24 year old men (the “target” market) to steal them and keep them at home as a trophy - because this increased brand recognition and brand loyalty!
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