If the independent and minor party Senators who hold the balance of power reject the Rudd Government’s tax on ready-to-drink pre-mixed spirits (RTDs), they will reward the alcohol industry for misleading the Senate Inquiry into RTDs. They will ignore proof that RTDs are consumed by the youngest underage drinkers who engage in dangerous drinking.

Independent Distillers Australia (IDA) is a major manufacturer of RTDs (or alcopops) which represent 94% of its business. Its formal submission to the Senate Inquiry denied RTDs are implicated in binge drinking: “RTDs…have not been directly linked to risky drinking behaviour” (p10) and it cited the 2004 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS): “…[the report] showed beer, wine and spirits were listed as being consumed in risky and high risk quantities, but, very significantly, RTDs were not”(IDA submission, p9).

The quote is accurate, but misleading. The statement is true only for people whose drinking puts them at risk of long-term harm. But for the youngest drinkers, aged 14-19, who are at risk of harm in the short-term i.e. due to intoxication and its effects, the result is reversed. Three-quarters prefer RTDs: 73% of males aged 14-19 at risk of immediate harm favour RTDs and 77% of females prefer premixed spirits or spirits equally.

This data, collected by the Australian Institute Health and Welfare, is devastating for the industry view that alcopops are not implicated in dangerous drinking. Oddly, and disappointingly, the AIHW did not publish this data in 2005. It allowed the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia to claim repeatedly that RTDs were “innocent” of involvement in harmful drinking, a false claim that is repeated by the IDA ad nauseum.

Yet the AIHW data that disproved it has been on the public record since September 2007 when the Australian Drug Foundation’s Community Alcohol Action Network retrieved the data from AIHW and published it on its website. And Jill Stark reported it in The Age at the same time. So Independent Distillers Australia should have known the true situation, but even if it did not, the case it put to the Senate is refuted by the AIHW findings.

IDA misled the Senate Inquiry for a second time when it cited a Mickey Mouse survey which purported to record the age distribution of RTD drinkers: “Percentage of overall RTDs market by age group” (IDA submission, p8). Only adult drinkers were polled in that survey, so it recorded 48% of RTDs were consumed by people aged 18-34 years and 52% by people aged over 35 years. No minors drink RTDs, according to this poll. It is literal nonsense that is confounded by the NDSHS and every other every reputable survey.

The IDA submission cannot be taken seriously. It is inaccurate and deceptive and confirms the alcohol industry cannot be relied upon to forgo self-interest when considering action to lessen drinking problems.

The case for RTDs to be taxed at the same level as spirits is well founded because it is clear they contribute to both underage drinking and binge drinking. There is no reason to give a tax break for manufacturers of drinks that are most attractive to adolescents. If the Senate should block the legislation it will reward the deceptive conduct of IDA and strike a blow against evidence based policy.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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