Sustainable Health Review backs recommendation for a state-wide minimum floor price for alcohol

A health review issued by the state government could spell the end for cheap grog for Western Australians, with a suggestion to implement a minimum price for alcohol.

The Sustainable Health Review's final report, released in April 2019, provides eight strategies and 30 recommendations for change in the health system.

Among those is a recommendation to "reduce harmful alcohol use by 10 per cent by July 2024".

The report states the introduction of a minimum floor price for alcohol, with regular adjustments for inflation, is a priority.

"Alcohol-related health problems are largely preventable and account for significant social, physical, emotional and economic and health system costs," the report said.

"As the most prevalent drug used in WA, behind tobacco, alcohol causes the most drug-related harm in the community.

"Setting a minimum floor price for alcohol is a major opportunity to help reduce alcohol-related harm. This approach, recently adopted by the Northern Territory, acts by setting a minimum price for alcohol based on the number of standard drinks it contains.

"The impact of this arrangement mainly affects those who drink at dangerous levels by increasing the cost of cheap forms of alcohol, while having minimal impact on casual drinkers."

Pressure has been mounting on the WA government for a number of years to introduce a minimum floor price for alcohol.

A floor price would set a minimum dollar amount per standard drink below which alcohol cannot be sold.

The measure would prevent alcohol retailers from selling bargain-basement booze.

The idea was first flagged by Health Minister Roger Cook in September 2017 to stop retailers selling discounted alcohol to binge drinkers, especially among young people.

In an interview with the Mandurah Mail in November 2018, Mr Cook said it was an important measure to consider in the effort to tackle alcohol abuse across the state.

"The introduction of a minimum price on alcohol in Western Australia remains of interest because of its potential to prevent alcohol-related harm and reduce pressure on our health system and the state government is keen for community discussion on this issue to continue," he said.

If we can reduce risky drinking, we can create a healthier and safer community for everyone.

WA health minister Roger Cook

The intoxicating industry and its related harm is said to cost the WA community in excess of $3.1 billion a year.

But some of the effects are even more costly.

In 2015, there were 565 alcohol-attributable deaths in WA.

The WA Alcohol and Youth Action Coalition's report included a number of alarming statistics about the devastation caused by excessive liquor consumption.

In 2012 in WA, alcohol was involved in 32 per cent of injury-related emergency department presentations, 18 per cent of all injury fatalities and 12 per cent of injury hospitalisations.

In 2012-2013, WA males aged 20-29 years were hospitalised at a rate more than triple the national average. In the same year, 33 people were hospitalised each week due to alcohol-attributable assaults.

More recently in 2017, 15 ambulances per day were called out for the primary reason of alcohol intoxication.

Mr Cook said something had to be done to put an end to the negative and often devastating outcomes of alcohol abuse.

"Reducing this harm is an important priority because it is preventable harm that affects drinkers as well as the broader community," he said.

"If we can reduce risky drinking, we can create a healthier and safer community for everyone."

At the time, Mandurah MP David Templeman agreed with the minister's sentiments.

Mr Templeman said the state government would be closely monitoring the Northern Territory government's introduction of a minimum price on alcohol to consider their options.

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A number of health experts believe a floor price is the best way to reduce heavy drinking among young people and curb alcohol-related harm.

Australian Medical Association Western Australia (AMA WA) president Dr Omar Khorshid has been calling on the state government to implement the policy since it was put into action in the NT last year.

"We know the harm that really cheap grog has on our society," he said.

"Excessive alcohol consumption is the source of significant health, social and economic harms, particularly among young Australians.

"There are more alcohol-related emergency department presentations in WA than the rest of Australia, something that our doctors and nurses see every day."

Dr Khorshid also echoed the comments of the Sustainable Health Review final report that the initiative would only impact high-risk groups.

"This will have no impact on the vast majority of people who drink socially, but it will make a difference to the heaviest drinkers and teenagers - those who are most responsive to changes in price and have the greatest harms associated with binge drinking," he said.

Minimum pricing could be one of the most important steps forward in WA to prevent and reduce problems linked to heavy drinking.

Public Health Association Australia chief executive Terry Slevin

Public Health Association Australia chief executive Terry Slevin said cheap alcohol comes at a cost.

"West Australians experience concerning levels of harm from their own and others' drinking," he said.

"Minimum pricing could be one of the most important steps forward in WA to prevent and reduce problems linked to heavy drinking."

However those in the economic industry were not convinced a minimum floor price would be the best way to tackle the issue of alcohol-related abuse.

Peel Chamber of Commerce and Industry general manager Andrew McKerrell said the impact would be felt beyond the business sector.

"I don't agree in removing a business' ability to operate independently in a competitive market," he said.

"Implementing a minimum price floor would also further encourage those in our society who use alcohol as a drug, to consume liquor at home and 'load up' before venturing out into the community.

"This would drastically raise the chances of anti-social behaviour due to increased consumption or worse, turning to alternate illicit substances."

A UK professor also weighed in on the issue during a Perth conference in 2018 about implementing a minimum floor price.

Dr John Holmes admitted that there are gaps in the research behind implementing a minimum alcohol floor price.

Speaking at a public seminar in Bentley on November 15, University of Sheffield's Dr John Holmes suggested there "might be both positive and negative effects of the policy simultaneously".

For over a decade, Dr Holmes has focused on research for the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group that follows patterns and trends in alcohol consumption and the analysis of policy options. His work has been used in the UK and internationally to inform policy debate around minimum pricing.

But Dr Holmes said there were still many unanswered questions in regards to implementing the floor price.

"We don't know a lot about how producers and retailers will respond," Dr Holmes said.

"We don't know what retailers are going to do with this windfall of extra revenue - there is fear that they might spend it on additional marketing activity.

"What will happen to products below the minimum price threshold - will they simply increase in price, will producers or retailers withdraw them from the market because they can't sell them effectively anymore?

"Or will they reformulate them to reduce the alcohol content and bring them up to the minimum price threshold in that way?

"What about products above the minimum price threshold?"

While the WA Government may have no immediate plans to introduce the policy, it has the full support of local government with Mandurah mayor Rhys Williams backing the initiative.

While the City of Mandurah do not hold an official position on the issue, Mr Williams said he personally believed in a minimum floor price for alcohol.

"Any mechanism to discourage young people from drinking excessive alcohol is worth being explored," he said.

"There are too many people in our community and in particular too many young people who, for whatever reason in life, are becoming too reliant on alcohol.

"Generally I'm not supportive of levers that are about enforcement over behaviour but I think in this case it's not going to have a big impact on people who are already making good decisions."