A study of hospital admissions in the Illawarra's favourite schoolies' destination, the Gold Coast, has shown no reduction in alcohol-related harm since the tax increase on alcopops.
A team from the University of Queensland (UQ) studied hospital records and data from hospitals, emergency departments and the Queensland Trauma Registry to see if the increase of the tax on alcopops had any effect on the numbers of 15-29 year olds presenting with alcohol-related harm – including alcohol poisoning and injuries from falls, fights and traffic accidents – between 2006 and 2009. In 2008, the Federal Government increased the excises on pre-mixed alcoholic drinks, commonly known as alcopops, by 70%.
Although Australians have paid $4.5 billion in alcopops taxes since 2008/09, there has been no significant decrease in young people presenting with alcohol-related harm after the tax increase.
These results should come as no surprise to people who remember what they were like as teenagers, or are the current parents of teenagers. Raising the price of just one type of drink may not reduce alcohol-related harm, especially in tourist destinations such as the Gold Coast. Young people may be merely switching to cheaper, and potentially, more potent, alcoholic drinks.
Their response when they go to a bottle shop and find their favourite alcopops tipple has doubled in price is unlikely to be that they will go home and retire to bed with a mug of hot chocolate.
In fact, there are stories that some bottle shops helpfully taped mixers to bottles of spirits to make it as easy as possible for them. This is reflected in figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that show drinkers have switched from pre-mixed drinks, such as rum-and-coke, to pure spirits since the tax was introduced.
Consumption of pre-mixed drinks fell 31 per cent between 2008 and 2011, but Australians drank 20 per cent more in pure spirits over the same period.
In addition, although there is strong evidence of the effectiveness of taxation on overall alcohol consumption, price may influence the average consumption of all drinks but not risky binges on a single occasion.
The study found that about one-third of people aged 15-29 years that presented to emergency departments across Queensland had an alcohol-related injury or illness, compared to about a quarter for other age groups.
A further study that specifically looked at the Gold Coast found similar results for males and females, under 19s and visitors and residents of the Gold Coast.
It also showed that other efforts to reduce binge drinking on the Coast, including increased policing and holding official drug-free and alcohol-free events were also ineffective.
This again suggests the need for a more comprehensive approach to binge drinking among young people
Such as approach would include a volumetric tax on all alcoholic drinks, incentives to encourage mid-strength and low-strength beer, restrictions on the availability of drinks with a high alcohol content, more effective regulation of advertising and reducing the number of outlets. In the Gold Coast, for instance, there is practically a bottle shop on every street corner.
Considering the current attention on risky drinking for young people, these results are important and point to the need to look more broadly at the alcopops legislation and other initiatives to reduce alcohol-related harm.
Professor Steve Kisely is Director of Health LinQ at the University of Queensland. His research and clinical interests are in epidemiology/pharmaco-epidemiology, chronic disease surveillance, health services research, and physical & psychiatric co-morbidity.
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