The Government is “Doing Something” about binge drinking. Codes of conduct for sporting clubs. Early intervention “pilot projects” for teenagers. AIDS-style shock ads about alcohol abuse (the Grim Wowser, perhaps?). Fifty three million dollars worth of “Doing Something” in these fiscally rigorous times.

The programs are, the Prime Minister says, all about “personal responsibility”. In which case, there seems a hell of a big role for government. But it got the Daily Telegraph front page, so “Mission Accomplished”.

We’re still no closer to knowing whether binge drinking is getting worse. The PM quoted a 2005 survey of secondary school students on binge drinking and “risky drinking” (which are different things), and a 2000 survey of football clubs. Presumably health bureaucrats spent last weekend looking for credible research to back up the Prime Minister’s conviction that our youth were drowning in a sea of grog, and were unable to find anything better than that.

It’s clear, though, that the Government also has in mind binge-drinking of a very specific kind – that of footballers. Rudd explicitly threatened to reconsider federal grants to any sporting organisations that failed to develop a code of conduct both for its own service of alcohol and the use of alcohol by its players. Perhaps the Prime Minister, like the rest of us, is sick of hearing about p-ssed sportsmen and the p-ssweak reaction of their clubs.

But it’s the advertising restrictions mooted by Rudd that will have the alcohol and television industries most concerned. He specifically excluded an outright ban, but all other options are on the table.

Steve Fielding has already introduced a bill to restrict alcohol advertising, which is currently under consideration by a Senate committee. Fielding’s bill would create an entirely new broadcasting regulatory mechanism to vet ads before broadcast. The Government’s commitment that it is currently “looking at” restrictions on alcohol advertising will enable it to head off Fielding. But, given Rudd has committed that advertising restrictions won’t be “swept under the carpet”, the Government will have to be seen to impose some form of regulation.

The current approach to regulating broadcasting is called “co-regulatory”. In practical terms, this means the broadcasters do pretty much what they please, and occasionally get slapped on the wrist by the media regulator, ACMA. The commercial television code of practice already has provisions relating to alcohol advertising. One option would be to require a significant tightening of those provisions. Anything beyond that will probably require amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act , and anything that limits the amount of advertising permitted is likely to upset the television networks.

Alternatively, the alcohol industry and its media associates could offer their own tighter model for self-regulation of advertising. But they’d better do it quick-smart. Governments eager to regulate don’t tend to worry too much about the consequences.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey