Pointing the finger elsewhere is no longer an option on alcohol policy. Doing so has been a great salve to the conscience in the past. However, hospital-based statistics released yesterday paint such a dismal picture of the increasing damage that alcohol is causing across Australia that it is time for action.

At a time of increasing concern about escalating health costs, it is no longer sufficient to talk about personal responsibility. Other people’s drinking has an impact on the whole community. We are not alone: in Russia President Dmitry Medvedev is declaring a major campaign on curbing alcohol-related harm. He is alarmed at research published in the Lancet, which  estimates that alcohol contributes to the deaths of more than half of all Russian men aged 15-54. However, just because there are appalling problems in other countries does not excuse inaction in our own.

It has been easy in recent times to be concerned about young people’s binge drinking. The discourse fits neatly into the attitude of “why aren’t they more responsible”? By looking at them we do not have to look at ourselves. Enough of shifting the problem elsewhere — it is time to recognise the extent of alcohol-related harm in Australia and to realise the problem is increasing. On a weekly basis alcohol is killing more than 60 Australians and putting another 1500 people in hospital.

The National Drug Research Institute yesterday released a report on one aspect of alcohol-related harm for people over 15 years of age, examining trends in deaths and hospitalisations for alcohol and non-alcohol attributable conditions.

The single most alarming finding is that the number of Australians hospitalised due to risky drinking has risen by a third between 1996 and 2005 and there are indications that this trend is set to continue. Russia, here we come!

The easy path over the past few years has been to point to binge drinking and assaults. And these are legitimate concerns. However, the NDRI report indicates a broad range of problems affecting the whole community. For example, it is striking that the most common cause of death due to risky and high-risk drinking in 2005 was alcoholic liver cirrhosis, which arises from alcohol consumption over the longer term.

At least death rates across Australia have been declining. The exception is in the ACT, which is the only jurisdiction to record an increase in alcohol-attributable deaths.

On hospitalisations, the message is clear for all jurisdictions — there is an increasing problem. Rates of alcohol-attributable hospitalisations have increased in all jurisdictions, especially in Victoria, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT. The largest increase was in Victoria.

Australian jurisdictions can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening. These hospital statistics illustrate that half-hearted efforts on alcohol-related policies will not stem the increasing harm. Complacency is no longer an option.

This report cannot be read in isolation. The Preventative Health Taskforce has just released a comprehensive study on alcohol-related harm and has provided a blueprint for action. Recommendations include higher alcohol taxation, partial or complete bans on the advertising and promotion of alcohol, increased measures to reduce drink-driving and the use of brief interventions by primary-care physicians to reduce hazardous alcohol consumption.

The taskforce has clearly identified that any increase in supply will mean an increase in harm. Any decrease in supply will mean a decrease in harm.

In Australia it is time for a policy and cultural shift. It will not be achieved by the Hollowmen solution of relying solely on social marketing campaigns. Hard decisions are needed. We know what they are and our decision-makers across all jurisdictions can no longer be complacent if there is going to be any chance of stemming the tide of alcohol-related harm.

Michael Moore is the CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia. He is a former ACT Health Minister, an adjunct professor in health policy at the University of Canberra and is on the board of the National Drug Research Institute.

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