Friday, August 27, 2010

A little perspective on the booze blight

It's interesting to watch the ever rising moral panic about booze that drives our politicians into a neo-prohibitionist frenzy. I rarely agree with conservative think tank the Centre for Independent Studies but their libertarian aspect leads them to support informed debate about the repeal of drugs prohibition and the perils of over-regulation, so they deserve points for consistency.

Below, they analyse the latest shock-horror report from the anti-alcohol industry, a report that the police are using to back their calls to shut down Sydney's night-time economy:
$36 billion ways to make a media splash
The first lesson for anyone wanting to make a big splash in the media is to have a big, scary, shocking number. It’s practically fool proof. Just put out your press release and wait for the phone to ring.

This tactic was put to good use this week by the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation, which released its finding that alcohol abuse costs the Australians $36 billion a year.

Newspapers and television stations around the country were quick to interrupt blanket coverage of the election to report on the newly quantified evils of booze.

The fact that the story could be accompanied by sensational footage of drunken louts punching on in Kings Cross didn’t hurt either.

But in the fast-paced world of news, not many journalists have the time to read a report that’s more than 200 pages long. And here’s the rub.

Many of the assumptions used to deduce the big scary figures are laughable.

The report says 70% of the population have been negatively affected by someone else’s drinking. This figure is clearly meant to shock. But a closer look reveals that it’s not so shocking after all. In this study, ‘negatively affected’ means anything from being in a relationship with a violently abusive alcoholic right down to being kept awake by a neighbour’s boozy barbeque. With such rubbery assumptions, it’s a wonder that it is only 70%.

Of those survey respondents who say they have been negatively affected by someone else’s drinking, 16.5% say they have suffered between ‘$5 and $25,000 per year’ of property loss or damage.

But the report doesn’t say where on this scale most respondents lay, so we can’t differentiate between people who have had their car written off by a drunk driver and those who have ended up with a broken wine glass at a dinner party.

Alcohol causes serious problems in our society. But not all drinking is the same. Wildly inflating the costs of drinking, while taking none of the benefits into account, trivialises the very real costs of drinking – and grossly damages the report’s credibility.

Jessica Brown is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies.

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