Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Cash for bricks and mortar, not people

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The latest government alcohol control effort, now a year old, has resulted in a dramatic drop in bottle shop and online transactions, but how much we drink hasn’t gone down by a lot.

Consumption, measured in litres of pure alcohol (table at right), was down 15% over three quarters of 2023, including 25% in the September quarter. (The December quarter details are not yet available.)

The number of sales being refused because the intending buyers were on the Banned Drinkers Register (BDR) have also decreased.

Tables compiled by the Alice Springs News for 2022 and 2023: Above – point of sale transactions through online and takeaway outlets. Below – the number of transactions ever declined because the person was on the Banned Drinker Register (BDR). Blue lines 2022; green lines 2023.

The large health organisation Congress, turning 50 today, provided a glowing endorsement of the restrictions’ results, providing comprehensive statistics about “a major reduction in crime, including domestic and family violence; and reduced alcohol-related hospital presentations”.

But Bill Yan (pictured), Member for Namatjira and Shadow Minister for Health, says alcohol abuse measures should have received more funding: “We’ve yet to see much of the $250m promised [by the Prime Minister] last year.

“The only thing I’m aware of is the dollars given to Congress to build their new facility on the old Memo Club property.”

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney announced in March 2022 the spending of $10m for a health hub in Todd Street providing programs for disability and aged care; social and emotional wellbeing, and youth and family support, maternal and child health and development outreach, and public health quality improvement, research, policy and advocacy services, with Congress providing $5.5m plus the already-purchased land of $4m.

Mr Yan says about the current alcohol restrictions: “While sales events may be lower the actual Peak Alcohol Concentration volume has remained somewhat constant which would say people are purchasing more alcohol during a single sales event.

“There was a spike in sales volumes in the reporting areas outside of Alice Springs in March 2023. Tennant Creek, Katherine, Palmerston and Darwin all reported higher than normal sales which supports the theories that many problem drinkers from our region moved elsewhere to gain access to alcohol.”

Mr Yan says initially the town camps saw a reduction in “issues” but as people adapted to the restrictions alcohol has returned to many of the town lease areas.

“This can be seen by the empty cartons, cans and bottles of alcohol in the camps and surrounds. What many people have said to me is that grog running has becoming more prevalent.”

It does not seem to be clear to what degree the lower tourist visitation is affecting the drop in alcohol consumption.

“I know from Tourism Central Australia that our tourist numbers have been significantly lower than 2022. Reports from caravan parks were that the number of drive tourists in our region was significantly down on previous years.”

However, Congress is adamant of the restrictions’ success.

CEO Donna AhChee says the number of alcohol-related domestic violence (DV) assaults has fallen by 41% from an average of 115 per month to 68 (and all domestic assaults are down 24%); alcohol-related assaults are down by 42% from an average of 152 per month to 88 (with all assaults down 23%); and property offences are down by 13% from 717 to 621.

Mr Yan says Alice Springs hospital initially reported a marked reduction in alcohol related harm and DV presentations on the reintroduction of restrictions in January and February 2023: “These presentation figures have slowly increased since that time but I believe remain lower than the previous average. I don’t have the latest Health figures.”

Taking a longer view, Mr Yan provided the News with a table comparing the number of offences in 2016 with those in 2023.

These are some of the high-number crimes: There were 3128 offences against the person in 2023, 82% more than in 2016. There were 1127 house break-ins (up 265%). Property offences 7946 (79%). DV 1867 (112%).

Mr Yan says there are crimes not represented in the statistics because they are not recorded although reported.

Ms Ah Chee chronicled the ups and downs of alcohol initiatives: Reforms in 2018 were associated with a 25% reduction in alcohol-related presentations to hospital. The expiry of Stronger Futures July 2022 led to a 35% increase until they fell again by half after the 2023 restrictions came in.

Says Ms Ah Chee: “Congress advocates that alcohol bans alone will not solve the issue of alcohol-related harm in Central Australia, which will require both sustained action to address the drivers of destructive drinking such as intergenerational trauma, poverty, inequality, poor education, and discrimination; and reforms on the availability of alcohol.”

Mr Yan says he’s had many people complaining to him about the days and hours of the restrictions but no-one on the single purchase per day.

“Most complaints are that if an individual wanted to buy a bottle of wine or a few beers on Monday or Tuesday they can’t, they have to plan ahead,” he says.

“They feel they are being restricted or punished because of the minority of alcohol abusers.

“The current government only seem to want to deal with the product, not the person. Alcoholics will go to great lengths to get their ‘product’ even when restrictions are in place.

“There has been no specific focus on dealing with the person which would seem to be the best long term approach to address chronic alcohol abuse. 12 months on from the Prime Minister coming to Alice Springs the government’s focus has been solely on liquor restrictions,” says Mr Yan.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything else that has been introduced to deal with the other issues facing our community, it’s like they have hung their hat on restrictions hoping that this will solve all he problems. Sadly, it hasn’t.”

We’ve invited Tourism Alice Springs to comment.

Jodi Truman, Chair of the Liquor Commission, declined an invitation to comment and respond to several questions from the News, and so did the police.

The Health Department provided a statement but did not answer questions we put to them.

This article appeared on Alice Springs News on 12 January 2024.


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