Access are at it again.

Access Economics have been under fire in recent months for reports on health issues that may bring their clients helpful publicity but are heavily criticised by experts.

Yesterday’s release of an Access Economics report for the Distilled Spirits Council of Australia on “Trends in alcohol-related hospital use by young people” has been used by the Distillers to bolster their arguments against the alcopops tax, and has also apparently fuelled an about-face by Senator Fielding as to whether he will support this important measure.

Nobody argues that the alcopops tax will solve all the world’s problems (of course we need a more sensible overall alcohol tax system, good public education, controls of alcohol promotion and other measures, some of which the Government already has under way), but it makes an important contribution to reducing binge drinking by young people.

The tax is hardly revolutionary: it simply closes a loophole, open since the GST was introduced in 2006, that made alcopops cheaper. Sales of both alcopops and spirits have fallen since the alcopops was introduced. Sure, there has been some substitution, but the overall impact has been everything the distillers might have feared.

Alcopops come in various shapes and forms, but in the final analysis, many of these products are designed for the youth market. They are sweet, sugary drinks that hide the bitter taste of spirits and encourage young people, especially young women, to drink and to get drunk quickly.

The distillers are raising the roof. They don’t like the tax, which affects their profits and their capacity to sell sweet, sugary spirit-based drinks to kids.

So they have commissioned a report from Access Economics. This report looks at “alcohol-related hospital use by young people”, but the whole process has rightly been described by Health Minister Nicola Roxon as being “as dodgy as a three day-old kebab”. Department of Health and Ageing Secretary Jane Halton has told a Senate Committee that it is “an incredibly poor piece of work”.

The report doesn’t even start to look at the alcopops tax in any broader context. There is no control group. The main classification used (the ICD — International Classification of Diseases — F10) is primarily about dependency problems — not the injuries that are the main and immediate cause of so many alcohol-related problems in young drinkers. The time periods used are so short that even the report itself cautions that “firm conclusions are not able to be drawn at this stage”.

So why do Access do it? It’s not enough to argue that they simply provide a report to the client. They know it will be used, and are out in the media spruiking the report. Nobody should deny their right to produce reports, but would their reputation not emerge in better shape if they were clearer about the caveats and left promotion to their clients, especially when “firm conclusions are not able to be drawn at this stage”?

Mike Daube is Professor of Health Policy and Director, Public Health Advocacy Institute of Western Australia at Curtin University of Technology.