While it may be normal and natural for Members of Parliament to promote enterprises in their electorate, Bundaberg Rum and The Hon. Member for Hinkler, Paul Neville, have a very close relationship. Bundaberg Rum has even claimed “ownership” of the member.

In 2003 the November edition of Spirit-Ed, newsletter of the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia (DSICA), carried an account of the annual Bundy party held in Parliament House, Canberra, during Melbourne Cup week. The host of the Bundy party, which DSICA said attracted “270 Ministers, Members of Parliament and staffers” was the Member for Hinkler.

“Spirit-Ed” published a photograph of the event featuring Paul Neville and officials from DSICA and Bundaberg Rum in company with the Bundy Bear in the Great Hall. The caption to the photo, as well as the accompanying text, announced Paul Neville as “the Minister for Bundaberg Rum.” How many Australian companies have appointed a Member of Parliament as its own Minister? Of course, they were only joking. It does suggest though that Bundaberg Rum has a mighty big opinion of itself, and, possibly, a more humble opinion of Australia’s elected representatives.

But given that relationship, is it fair to expect the Member for Hinkler to cast a vote on alcohol issues in Parliament on their merits, without considering the interests of the company? And as a manufacturer of RTDs, Bundaberg Rum has a strong interest in the question of increased taxation on premixed spirits.

I think the health field would like to have an open battle with the alcohol industry over facts. That’s what it needs, because it will never compete with the largesse handed out to politicians by the giants of Alcorp. Just what does Trevor Cook think is the point of the Bundy party?

The case for a tax increase for RTDs is stronger than Mr Cook allows.

First, data collected by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare for the 2004 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found the great majority (75%) of teenage drinkers aged 14-19 who drank at “risky and high risk levels” preferred RTDs over all other alcoholic beverages.

This was true of males who like canned RTDs and females who preferred bottles. For some reason this data was not included in the published reports of the 2004 Household Survey, but was released last year as unpublished data following a request by the Australian Drug Foundation’s Community Alcohol Action Network (see GrogWatch 17 Sept 2007 or here).

It means the heaviest underage drinkers consume RTDs instead of beer, wine and other spirits. Why would government want to give a tax break to the drinks that are most attractive to underage drinkers when everyone wants to discourage them?

Second, there is the testimony of an industry insider that RTDs are deliberately produced for young people, including those who want to binge. Mat Baxter, a senior partner in the Naked Communications marketing agency, and who had the job of marketing the Absolut Cut RTD in Australia, volunteered: “It’s one of the few drinks where you don’t necessarily know you’re drinking alcohol and that’s a conscious effort to make those drinks more appealing to young people.

The drinks are very much about masking the alcohol taste. When you’re young your palate is tuned for sugary drinks” (The Age, 6 August 2007, p3). When Absolut Cut was withdrawn he complained: “It leaves a void in the $2 billion RTD binge drinker category.” And he advised the industry where the RTD future lay: “The real area for growth if you can carve [it] out is still at 7% with a sophisticated but affordable drink that will appeal to young people on a budget who want to get drunk very quickly.

They want to buy three drinks and feel it rather than five at 5.5% for double the money.” (B&T Weekly, 27 July 2007, p 3). Coincidentally, Bundaberg Rum, like so many other brands, produced a “premium” RTD with an alcoholic content of 6.9%.

Does the alcohol industry try to debate these facts? No wonder it prefers to throw parties.

Peter Fray

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