Ross Fitzgerald: Alcohol abuse is destroying youth, so let’s de-glamorise it

An Australian Op-Ed calls for a tobacco-like public heath campaign on alcohol:

AS a nation we have never been more health conscious, yet we seem to be ignoring all the warnings about alcohol abuse.

Alcohol, our most widely used drug, is still ravaging the young, destroying indigenous communities, damaging the mentally ill and destroying lives, unabated. Perhaps some of the same zeal that has been applied to the anti-smoking cause could be enlisted in a concerted fight against alcohol abuse and misuse.

The ramifications of cigarette use are now seen on every pack: stained teeth, raw gums, gangrene from blocked arteries, heart disease and multiple cancers. In the West we have come a long way from the days when cigarettes could be promoted by white-coated doctors or, in one case, a smiling Ronald Reagan. Cigarette advertising is now banned, as it should be. In its place, on virtually every railway network, sporting venue, commercial television and radio program, advertisements and endorsement of alcohol have replaced advertisements for cigarettes.

How has alcohol escaped the Buga-up treatment, or something similar? Some argue that it’s different, that many consumers can use alcohol sensibly and safely, while tobacco is highly addictive and every cigarette does damage.

Then the statistics are trotted out. In Australia, tobacco kills up to 19,000 people a year, alcohol 3000-plus – although that does not include those killed by drinkers in assaults, violence, accidents or through sheer negligence – and illicit drugs less than 1000. But cigarette smokers usually die later in life, whereas alcohol predominantly kills young drinkers, and others, from assaults, injuries, homicides, road trauma and domestic violence. Add to this the impoverishment of family and community life – a toxic social mix of violence, injury and neglect – well outside the calculus of tobacco harms.

It is instructive to learn that alcohol problems are escalating in the UK as drinking hours have been extended. The Royal College of Physicians, not exactly a radical group, recently recommended to the Blair Government a complete ban on alcohol advertising. They were responding to the doubling of alcohol-related deaths from 1991 to 2004.

Given successful litigation against tobacco transnationals, there soon may be a groundswell of opinion in favour of taking action against the makers, distributors and sellers of alcohol.

The hazards of alcohol misuse in environments of heavy drinking are well known and there are clearly many cases in which harm, both to the drinking person and to others, could have been reasonably foreseen and in which the suppliers of alcohol should have exercised due care and diligence. A recent survey of 500 Australians in the age group 18-24 found one in four had been drinking to the point of passing out.

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