‘Eat your Greens, Keane’: health experts fight back

Crikey readers weigh in on the big issues of the day.

Di Natale v Keane on alcohol wowsers Greens Senator Richard Di Natale writes: Re. "Dear preventative health wowsers: stop taking the piss" (yesterday). I usually have a lot of time for Bernard Keane's analysis. His is a voice of sanity in an otherwise dull, predictable and partisan public debate. But his critique on Monday of what he calls "preventative health wowsers" was way off the mark. It needs a response, not just because of this one article, but because vested interests and ideologues use many of the same facile arguments and too often are left unchallenged. Bernard argues that the "the medical profession and the preventive health industry are engaged in a constant campaign against basic rights in the name of forcing Australians to become healthier". He primarily draws on the responses to alcohol abuse, but also refers to smoking and gambling. He infers that the problem of alcohol abuse is overstated and that responses to health issue is "always to ban, to tax us and to use surveillance". Bernard's central thesis is that health professionals are simply social elites who want to control behaviours that they disapprove of. On the first point that alcohol consumption is overstated, Bernard is being a little tricky with the numbers. Per capita consumption of alcohol is high by world standards with Australia ranked in the top 30 highest alcohol-consuming nations, and ahead of countries like Greece, USA, Italy Japan and Sweden. While it might be true that countries like France and Spain have higher per capita use this is only half the story, because average drinking patterns in those countries are healthier. Compare that to Australia, where one in five Australians (20.4%) drink at short-term risky/high-risk levels at least once a month (with the number rising among young adults). The burden of disease directly attributable to alcohol is uncertain but the number is probably somewhere around 5%. Between 1992 and 2001, more than 31,000 Australians died from alcohol-attributable injury and disease with over half a million hospitalisations over a similar period. None of that might matter if you take the view that every individual has the right to drink or smoke themselves to death. However things are a little more complex than that. Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is now widely recognised as one of the most common preventable causes of birth defects and brain damage in children. It occurs when expectant mums consume alcohol during their pregnancy, many of them blissfully unaware that alcohol is harming their baby. What about the child's right to be born free from damage? In Australia almost half of all perpetrators of assault are intoxicated before the event and it's often innocent bystanders that get hurt. And there is the question of whether people really have a choice when they are in the grip of an addiction. Read more ... GST debate Andrew Bartlett, former Democrat senator and current Queensland Greens convenor, writes: Re. "Crikey says: circuit-breaking in GST debate" (yesterday). Far be it from me to defend the GST deal done by then-Democrat Leader Meg Lees, seeing I voted against the overall deal at the time. But whilst I have no problem with a more public debate about the pros and cons of amending the GST, I think your editorial backing the removal of the GST exemption on fresh food is misguided. There are very good reasons why fresh food should remain GST exempt. Increasing the price of fresh food would be a regressive move which would impact more on the less well-off. It would also increase the price of fresh food relative to some of the less healthy options which are currently subject to the GST. Some of the state taxes and charges which could potentially be removed if the GST take increased could be more regressive than taxing fresh food, but none of them are as fundamental to the basic cost of living as food is. I agree that the current funding model for state and territory governments presents some problems, and raising further revenue to address this is desirable. But there are far more progressive ways to raise the estimated $6 billion dollars that might be raised by subjecting fresh food to the GST. Just a few options include bringing back the original mining super profits tax, removing or further tightening the private health insurance rebate, increased income tax for very high earners and reforming taxation of superannuation so it ceases to favour the wealthier. ABC cuts Rod Macdonald writes: Re. "Why the ABC is right to axe Tassie TV production" (yesterday). Perhaps a little bit of Tasmanian ABC history is in order here. Gardening Australia, which before it was moved summarily to Melbourne against the wishes of Tasmanian viewers (but what do we matter), used to be wholly produced in Tasmania, and hosted by the inimitable Peter Cundall. It actually started life in Tasmania many years before as a program called Landscape. Similarly, Tasmania also pioneered nightly TV current affairs with a program called Line-Up, which later morphed into This Day Tonight, TDT and eventually the 7.30 Report. It seems that Tasmania is a victim of its own success. Robert Cole writes: My experience of ABC Sydney is one of wanton waste and overpaid numbers of people who wouldn't know what the outback or wilderness of Australia is. This is not about the ABC really, it's about the working charter that the people of Australia want. Politicians have cut and cut and cut what was a first rate world service and now is a Sydney/Melbourne-based production company. That is not what we need, nor is it what was the original concept. Please politicians of all types, whether state or federal, make a noise and let the wasters of public money in Canberra be aware of the needs. Draft a full outline of requirements of the ABC and yes, it should be public-funded. Don't destroy a good thing that’s where we are going. Beryce Nelson writes: The ABC is making the classic marketing error of removing popular and profitable products from their line and replacing them with new and largely untested products in the hope of increasing market share. Its business equivalent is the mad notion of Coca Cola being removed from the shelves to allow for the introduction of flavoured soda water in pretty bottles. It will not work and the ABC senior management should know better. Jesus and the inn Keith Binns writes: Re. Richard Farmer's chunky bits, "Get rid of those donkeys" (yesterday). If Benedict wanted to be really biblically controversial then he should be backing the opinion of many scholars and saying that the birth was not at an inn, but at Joseph's family home. The word translated "inn" (the only time it is in the NT) is the same word used for the upper room of the last supper. Jesus was born in the stable  (quite possibly with various animals) because the guest room was full. There was no inn.

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