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Mixed message on binge drinking

By Jeremy Sammut - posted Monday, 5 May 2008

From midnight on Saturday (April 26) - the hour when party people usually begin to emerge - the Rudd Government raised the excise tax on so-called alcopops by 70 per cent.

To justify the hike, federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon maintained that the Howard government encouraged a rise in teenage binge drinking because it failed to bring the tax on pre-mixed drinks, like Vodka Cruisers, into line with the tax on bottled spirits.

The impact of alcohol taxes on young binge drinkers is a complex question.


Estimates are that prices, per bottle, will increase by up to $1.30. At worst, spending the same amount will buy between one and two fewer pre-mixed drinks and this is hardly likely to deter those determined to binge.

Price has played little role in the growing popularity of pre-mixed drinks, these so-called lolly waters.

Pre-mixes always have been a more expensive option. It is taste and convenience that has encouraged underage drinkers to switch from the cheaper old-school option, like the hip-flask and a bottle of Coke.

It's highly likely that most binge drinkers simply will pay a bit more to drink what they already prefer, regardless of the cost.

The notion that higher taxes will curb teenage binge drinking is fanciful. Roxon did her best to simplify the subject on television. She argued that the percentage of young girls consuming pre-mixed drinks had increased from 14 to 60 per cent since 2000. Rather than explaining what this really meant - that the popularity of pre-mixes simply had increased - Roxon created the impression that this was proof that binge drinking had exploded among teenage women, and that the new tax was justified to stem the bingeing epidemic that had gripped the nation.

The figures the minister quoted certainly sounded impressive. Except that the 2007 National Household Drug Survey found that, since 1991, alcohol consumption patterns for Australians aged 14 years or older remained largely unchanged. That's just for starters.


Look at the 2001, 2004, and 2007 surveys compiled by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, and you also find that between 2001 and 2007 there was no overall increase in high-risk binge drinking by people aged 14 to 19. In fact, the percentage reported as bingeing weekly was 10.7 in 2001 and 2004, before falling to 9.1 in 2007.

The figures for young women are even more damning. In 2001, the percentage of 14 to 19-year-olds bingeing weekly - five or more drinks on any one occasion - was 11.8 per cent. In 2004, the figure was 10.5. In 2007, this had fallen to 9.5. Even the figure for 14 to 19-year-old young women bingeing monthly has fallen since 2001 from 21.2 to 18.8. And the number of abstainers has increased from 25 to 29 per cent.

This isn't to say we should not be concerned about those young women who do binge drink. But the "crisis" isn't as great as the Health Minister portrayed and it does mean we should suspect the Government's real agenda.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on April 30, 2008.

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About the Author

Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. Jeremy has a PhD in history. His current research for the CIS focuses on ageing, new technology, and the sustainability of Medicare. Future research for the health programme will examine the role of preventative care in the health system and the management of public hospitals. His paper, A Streak of Hypocrisy: Reactions to the Global Financial Crisis and Generational Debt (PDF 494KB), was released by the CIS in December 2008. He is author of the report Fatally Flawed: the child protection crisis in Australia (PDF 341KB) published by the CIS in June 2009.

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