The health and community costs of excessive alcohol consumption in Australia have been well-documented. However, there has been no coordinated approach to reducing the impact of alcohol-related harms; the limited initiatives undertaken have been focused largely on minimising the short-term harms of excessive alcohol consumption.
Australia's harmful consumption levels by international comparison and the high community costs of alcohol misuse, including the impact on cancer burden and treatment costs, show the urgent need for more effective, integrated public policy interventions.
Alcohol consumption guidelines
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol advise healthy men and women to consume no more than two standard drinks on any day to reduce the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.
The guidelines also include recommendations for minimising the risk associated with one-off drinking occasions, consumption for children and young people and for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Cancer Council Australia recommends that to reduce their risk of cancer, people limit their alcohol consumption. Individuals who choose to drink alcohol should do so within the NHMRC guidelines. Although low levels of alcohol consumption, particularly over a prolonged period, increase an individual's risk of developing alcohol-related cancer, the NHMRC guidelines are a useful guide for moderating consumption. The less alcohol you consume, the lower your risk of alcohol-related cancer.
Existing alcohol control policy in Australia
Responsibility for alcohol policies in Australia is shared across all levels of government and is based on harm minimisation principles. Key elements of current alcohol control strategies include:
- regulatory controls relating to the sale and supply of alcohol;
- alcohol pricing and taxation;
- drink driving laws;
- self-regulation of alcohol advertising and marketing;
- health promotion and direct intervention strategies, including counselling and treatment services; and
- provision of information and education on alcohol and its related harms, either at the population level through media campaigns, or through community-based educational programs.
The National Alcohol Strategy 2006-11 was co-developed by federal, state and territory governments and endorsed through the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy in May 2006 as a response to high-risk alcohol consumption in Australia. The four priority areas nominated as the focus of the strategy were:
- public safety and amenity;
- health impacts; and
- cultural place and availability.
The new National Drug Strategy 2010-15 sets out a coordinated national strategy for minimising alcohol-related harms, which was developed through collaboration between governments, non-government organisations, industry partners and the broader Australian community. The strategy focuses on three pillars – harm reduction, supply reduction, demand reduction. Activity under the strategy is undertaken at both national and jurisdictional level by health, law enforcement and education services and non-government organisations funded under agreement with the Australian Government. Under this overarching strategy, a new National Alcohol Strategy will be developed to continue the work under the existing alcohol strategy.
In addition, a National Binge Drinking Strategy was announced in 2008 to address binge drinking among young Australians.
The 2009 National Preventative Health Strategy made a number of recommendations for alcohol policy reforms, including regulation of alcohol promotions and reforming alcohol taxation and pricing arrangements to discourage harmful drinking. The full report and recommendations from the National Preventative Health Taskforce can be accessed here. The report also contains detailed information about the history of alcohol control policy in Australia and an analysis of interventions explored according to the evidence and extent of research.
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