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In an era of fake news, denialism and relentless spinning, you’d hope a bureaucratic document aiming for the universally endorsed goal of reducing alcohol-related harms would be rigorous, evidence-based and free of ideological bias. Alas, not the draft National Alcohol Strategy produced by the Commonwealth Department of Health.

The draft strategy attracted attention yesterday when the nation’s most fundamentalist anti-alcohol lobbying body, the taxpayer-funded Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, got some gullible media coverage for a “report” in which it claimed the draft had been “watered down” by the alcohol industry, which should have no role of any kind in its development. But the real story of the strategy was how the draft initially circulated last year contained serious errors and lapses in logic.

The draft refers to how “Australia is regularly reported or casually referred to as having an ‘alcohol culture’ where not consuming alcohol can be viewed as being ‘unAustralian'”, but then admits that the hard evidence is that alcohol consumption in Australia has fallen significantly in recent years — it’s a poor “alcohol culture” indeed where the proportion of Australians who don’t drink at all has surged since the early 2000s and the rate of young people binge drinking has plummeted.

FARE has long tried to avoid acknowledging the significant decline in alcohol consumption, preferring to focus on issues like the number of deaths related to alcohol, and the claim that alcohol is innately toxic. Australia “has nearly 6,000 alcohol-related deaths”, FARE says, and there is “no safe level of alcohol consumption”. The draft strategy follows the FARE line, claiming “more than 5,500 deaths estimated to be attributable to alcohol annually” and that it aims to “challenge perceptions of risk among Australians about safe drinking levels.”

But FARE and thus the bureaucrats who wrote the draft strategy wildly overstate the number of deaths attributable to alcohol. “When considering alcohol and its contribution to all deaths, a total of 4,186 registered deaths had alcohol mentioned in 2017,” the ABS reported last year, noting “Australia has lower rates of deaths directly attributed to alcohol when compared with the late 1990s.” FARE is overstating the number of deaths by more than 40%.

And there are mountains of evidence that moderate alcohol consumption has significant health benefits, with increases in risks associated with some cancers more than outweighed, on a population basis, by benefits to cardio-vascular health. It’s heavy drinking and binge drinking have significant negative health consequences, and abstinence may also have some negative health impacts. Even an OECD study that urged anti-alcohol policies admitted there was “established evidence of the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption”. FARE’s “no safe level” claim is more about its long-term campaign to “tobacco-ise” alcohol and de-legitimise its use altogether than science.

Another tactic is to highlight which groups shouldn’t consume alcohol at all — an approach the draft strategy embraced to a ludicrous extent. It refers to “disproportionate levels of harm being experienced within some contexts and communities”, viz:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • People in remote areas
  • People with co-morbid health conditions
  • Pregnant women
  • Teenagers and young adults
  • Adults in their forties, fifties and sixties
  • Older people
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people
  • People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds

That is, pretty much the entire population except for white Anglo heterosexual healthy urban adults between 21 and 40 and not pregnant fall into a special harm category — though the draft strategy acknowledges people from diverse backgrounds actually drink at levels about one third those of the whole population, but it lumps them in for good luck anyway.

As to the central charge than industry somehow managed to “water down” this bizarre document, it still urges minimum unit pricing, a regressive tax bitterly opposed by the alcohol industry, and further advertising restrictions, as well as volumetric pricing, which some parts of the industry support and others oppose.

What FARE really wants — and what was repeated verbatim by the media — is that the industry should be banned from the development of the strategy. Crikey first reported on this issue more than five years ago, showing that the fundamentalist sections of the public health lobby here and overseas regard industry as a “virus” that needs to be eradicated — despite the evidence that industry participation is crucial to good public health outcomes. Public health lobbyists who are actually focused on results, rather than a kind of anti-capitalist ideology that pathologises industry, want the people who make and market the product involved in the development of public health strategies so that they work better. But they tend to be shut out and howled down by fundamentalists like FARE for whom public health is an crusade, not evidence-based science.

Should the alcohol industry be banned from the development of strategy? Write to [email protected] with your full name and let us know.