Bucket full of beer

The medical profession and the growing, taxpayer-funded preventive health industry are engaged in a constant campaign against basic rights in the name of forcing Australians to become healthier. Media coverage of the campaign is episodic and sporadic. But pieced together, the nature of the campaign becomes clear — even when confined to the recent past.

In September, the taxpayer-subsidised Australian Drug Foundation called for alcohol consumption to be banned on school grounds because drinking at fetes or BBQs “undermines the alcohol education programs for young people in schools”.

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The same month, the Australian Medical Association called for the legal drinking age to be lifted to 25 (presumably because prohibition has worked so well in the past). In June, the AMA demanded a complete ban on alcoholic energy drinks.

Last week, Sandra Jones, director of the Centre for Health Initiatives at the University of Wollongong, attacked online wine sites for selling at “ridiculously low prices”, declaring (without evidence) “it’s typically young people who are more likely to be on social media and on these group buying sites”. Jones wants a minimum price for alcohol. Her comments are part of strengthening campaign from public health types to impose additional taxes on alcohol.

The new headquarters of the preventative health industry, the $9 million Australian National Preventive Health Agency, recently released a discussion paper proposing an increase in wine taxation and more research for a minimum alcohol price, including the localised imposition of a minimum price in some areas.

The call to make alcohol more expensive is propped up by some interesting maths about the alleged economic cost of alcohol. The taxpayer-subsidised Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education has released a commissioned report arguing not merely for a shift to volumetric alcohol taxation, but a lift in all alcohol taxes. The basis for the argument was the extraordinary claim that alcohol causes $15 billion per annum in “harm to others”, including nearly $8 billion pa in “loss of quality of life” (the basis for these numbers was disputed by Access Economics, on behalf of the alcohol industry).

The persistent demonisation of alcohol is a core driver of preventive health campaigning (Chris Berg pointed out one of the more absurd examples). In 2009, The Australian prised from the Commonwealth Department of Health a report that proposed to force employers to discourage alcohol consumption on the basis that “in some work settings, workers who do not normally drink in their own leisure time may find it expected of them by their colleagues or workplace” and that Australia’s drinking culture was “calculated hedonism”.

Another report from the National Drug Research Institute this year supported workplace breath-testing. This is despite the fact that as FARE itself admitted in a Senate inquiry submission, Australian alcohol consumption had fallen by nearly a third since 1975. The submission also claimed Australia’s level of consumption was “high by world standards”, a claim that only holds when non-developed countries are counted. Australia’s level of consumption is below that of virtually every European country, and often far below.

Demonisation of young people is another persistent feature. This time last year, Sandra Jones was joining the annual schoolies hysteria by warning “almost two-thirds will have more than 10 drinks a night and ‘hook’ up s-xually with a stranger”, presumably on the basis that no previous generations have ever engaged in binge drinking or casual s-x. A WA parliamentary committee wanted to lift the drinking age to 21, though the Barnett government knocked them back.

As two liquor outlets last week posted guards at stores in order to somehow divine that adults were buying alcohol for people under 18, we were warned of the evil genius of young people: “you’ll see four or five down the road or across the road in the park pooling some money and that one who is 18 will come in.” FARE has demanded the NSW government institute sting operations to catch out any retailers selling alcohol to under-18s and the removal of legal defences against doing so. Then there’s the proposal to ban young people from smoking from 2018.

This approach accords neatly with traditional media narratives about uncontrolled youth and their unprecedented violence/drug use/s-xual activity/poor taste in music/hair styles; all the better if the internet (which is of course distorting the brains of young users) can be added to the mix.

Yes, the internet, too, worries the preventive health industry. It is still valiantly fighting to have alcohol advertising banned altogether from traditional media but it has been looking at the internet and warning of disaster for a while. “Anecdotal evidence suggests online social networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, may hold a range of potential risks in facilitating social interactions involving alcohol that my have potentially harmful repercussions,” warned a 2008 report (the fact that no one used MySpace after about 2006 suggests how on the ball the report’s authors were).

And last year ANPHA gave more than $250,000 to a University of Sydney academic to examine “how the rapid emergence and mass adoption of new media tools, including social networking websites, may be promoting unhealthy foods, influencing dietary choices and contributing to excessive weight gain” and how “effective marketing regulations” could be used to deal with it.

A fortnight ago a workplace relations lawyer called for the banning of access to gambling sites from work for health reasons, comparing them to p-rnography and race hate sites.  Croakey’s Melissa Sweet has also covered the rather censorious tone toward social media adopted by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency in its draft social media policy. Sydney University researchers recently demanded the banning of what they called “pro-smoking apps” for mobile devices.

The instinctive urge of preventive health advocates is always to ban us, to tax us, to use surveillance. This doesn’t merely apply to companies, but to individuals. Only yesterday, two medical professionals made the astonishing proposal that everyone in the country currently using opioid pain relief should be regularly drug tested to make sure they were consuming them rather than selling them. A German study on alcohol consumption in effect infantilised all women when it suggested GPs start interrogating their female patients about how much they drink.

Veteran anti-smoking campaigner and respected health academic Simon Chapman recently proposed licensing and smartcard sales-tracking of smokers, although commendably he had enough intellectual rigour to invite a critic of the proposal to respond. Licensing, and the control and surveillance that it enables, is a popular tactic for public health advocates — former NT administrator and anti-alcohol campaigner Ted Evans has called for licensing of alcohol consumption.

Sometimes there’s nothing overly sinister about demands for regulation — they’re just a cover for old-fashioned gouging: the AMA has joined with a pharmacy chain in demanding that supermarkets be banned from selling panadol because “you can buy 100 tablets for hardly any money”.

There’s little new in all this. Last year, a coalition of preventive health groups demanded the Victorian government move to curb the number of liquor licences. Between trying to reduce the number of alcohol retailers and using taxation to increase the price, the preventive health industry has moved precisely nowhere in over 250 years since the Gin Craze of 18th century England. In what has been called the first drug scare in history, mid-18th century British governments, spurred by an outraged middle class, used exactly the same tactics to attack the prevalence of gin consumption among poorer English people who, it was felt, drank too much and didn’t work hard enough.

It’s fascinating how little the justification for such crackdowns has changed. Attempts to regulate and tax gin out of the reach of poorer people were justified by not merely by moral righteousness but on economic grounds: gin was damaging the capacity of English women to produce children, and consumption of gin caused poverty and idleness in an economy struggling to compete with its European rivals.

The economic justification is no longer couched in such melodramatic terms. Instead, it relies on QALYs — Quality Adjusted Life Years, and AWE-based calculations of lost productivity. But the motivation remains the same: social élites anxious to impose control on what they disapprove of. The big difference now is that nearly all of this is taxpayer-funded: we are paying these élites to rationalise banning, taxing and using surveillance over what they disapprove of.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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