Forget Lockout Laws, A Minimum Price On Booze Can Help Fix Our Drinking Problem

Alcohol is embedded in Australian culture, and discussions around alcohol-related harm and how to tackle these are ongoing.

One in four Australians consume alcohol at harmful rates, and approximately one in five people aged 14 and over have reported being a victim of an alcohol-related crime in the past year.

Alcohol is linked with cancer, heart and liver disease, and poor mental health. It is also linked to domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, family breakdown, and low work productivity. In 2013, the NSW Auditor-General estimated that alcohol-related harm costs the state about $3.9 billion per year.

It was in response to a spate of one-punch attacks that the Sydney lockout laws were introduced in 2014. Since being enforced, the lockout laws have generated a lot of controversy and persistent questions over whether the measure has been effective.

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Furthermore, Sydneysiders concerned about the impact on the culture, music and nightlife in the city have taken to protest, with initiatives like the Keep Sydney Open campaign and political party. While some data showed a 26 percent reduction in assaults in the lockout area, more recent research has suggested that alcohol -related assaults were falling in the CBD anyway, and that the lockout laws have had no significant impact on reducing them.

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The NSW Government recently called for a parliamentary review of the lockout laws. In its submission to the review, The Royal Australian College of Physicians (RACP) wants the lockout laws to be reinforced with additional measures -- including a minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol.

MUP involves the introduction of a statutory minimum price per unit of alcohol sold. It is a measure primarily targeting ultra-cheap booze like cask wines that are sold in bulk and with high potency.

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The measure has been tried elsewhere, most notably in Scotland where it has been largely successful in cutting down sales and consumption of the cheapest alcohol that can often do the most harm. However, there is a downside in that it can penalise the poorest in society who often consume very cheap booze and may subsequently end up spending more of their limited income on alcohol.

So MUP can likely offer an effective approach to mitigate alcohol related harm in Australia. But there are also some issues to think about...

A first attempt to introduce MUP in Scotland was unsuccessful due to a failure to engage and build consensus with politicians and the public to generate support.

Eventually, after extensive consultation with key stakeholders and the building of public support, MUP in Scotland became law in 2018. A similar consultative approach would be needed here in Australia.

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Also, the alcohol industry is likely to fight the introduction of MUP in Australia just as it did in Scotland -– with the Scottish Government having to defend the policy in the Court of Justice of the European Union and the UK Supreme Court before being able to enact the legislation. In the end, the Scottish Government was able to convince the court that protecting public health took precedent over restrictions on trade.

But whether it is MUP or other measures –- there is no silver bullet to tackling alcohol-related harms. Any one single measure on its own is likely to only have a small effect. To sufficiently tackle alcohol harms, a suite of different measures working at different levels of influence would be required.

Featured Image: Getty