By Julia Stafford, Co-convenor of the Public Health Association of Australia Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Special Interest Group and Alcohol Program Manager at Cancer Council Western Australia.
An evaluation of the initial impacts of an alcohol minimum unit price in the Northern Territory has found that alcohol-fuelled harms have significantly reduced and it’s helping to create healthier and safer NT communities. The very encouraging outcomes in the NT support renewed calls for all Australian jurisdictions to introduce a minimum unit price (MUP) on alcohol.
Independent research , led by Professor Peter Miller from Deakin University’s Centre for Drug use, Addictive and Anti-social Behaviour Research, analysed data from a range of sources, including administrative data (e.g., health, police, treatment, and liquor licensing), a phone survey, key informant interviews, and price monitoring.
Wholesale alcohol supply data showed a significant decline after the introduction of MUP, particularly for cask wine. Significant reductions were found in a wide range of alcohol harm indicators, including:
- Alcohol-related assaults are down by 23 percent compared to the previous year
- Alcohol-related emergency department presentations are down by 17 percent compared to the previous year
- Alcohol-related ambulance attendances;
- Alcohol-related hospital admissions;
- Alcohol-related road crash injuries and fatalities; and
- Investigations of child protection notifications, and the numbers of child protection orders and out of home care cases.
An increase in the rate of alcohol and other drug treatment episodes was found, which may support longer-term downwards trends in harms.
The minimum price of $1.30 per standard drink was introduced in the NT as part of a suite of measures, including a banned drinkers register and police auxiliary liquor inspectors. While the contributions of each measure to the outcomes cannot be completely separated, Professor Peter Miller noted that, “the methods used in this report have allowed for an assessment of changes across a range of outcomes and the staggered implementation of different policy elements in different locations allows for some teasing out of differential impacts”. The researchers concluded that the MUP complemented and significantly added to the impact of the other measures to further reduce harm in many communities.
Two other findings are worth noting as they relate to common areas of industry opposition to MUP:
- Moderate drinking patterns showed no change; and
- Tourism in the NT was not affected – the numbers of visitors and tourism expenditure remained stable.
While longer term evaluations will paint a clearer picture, in the meantime, this report shows that a comprehensive approach to alcohol policy can bring important benefits for the health and safety of the community, and bringing in a reasonable alcohol floor price didn’t cause the sky to fall in.
So why is this evaluation important? Should we be surprised when a policy with as substantial an evidence base as MUP does exactly what it’s intended to do? Well, no, but the NT is the first jurisdiction in Australia to put a floor price on alcohol and this is the most comprehensive, real-world evaluation of a MUP in Australia to date. Other jurisdictions will be watching the NT experience closely. The successful outcomes there should encourage other governments to follow and will bolster advocacy by health and community organisations at the jurisdictional level.
The evaluation report was enthusiastically welcomed by a chorus of those working to reduce the impacts of alcohol on the community, including the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol, FARE, Alcohol and Drug Foundation, and Cancer Council WA.
Of course, not everyone is happy that the measures are working. Based on the response from the alcohol industry it looks like MUP has passed the scream test. As you might expect, Retail Drinks Australia, the trade association representing liquor retailers dismissed the 285 page research report as “inconclusive and inadequate” and “of no substantive value”. Retail Drinks had commissioned its own research to address the ‘inadequacies’ of the independent evaluation. Their commissioned research by ‘Frontier Economics’ found people were drinking more, but as their report hasn’t been released, we can’t assess their claims.
The industry will be very aware that MUP is a policy that is targeted at reducing the drinking of their best customers. Research published in the ANZJPH found that the heaviest drinking 10 percent of Australians accounted for around 55 percent of all alcohol consumed. Those drinkers who are most at risk of a whole range of acute and chronic health problems are the alcohol industry’s most valued customers, and we can be sure they’ll do what they can to hold on to them.
Further evaluation of the MUP from the NT and other countries, such as Scotland where a MUP was introduced in May 2018, will be welcomed by the public health community. In the meantime, this NT evaluation and the initial research coming out of Scotland add to an already compelling body of evidence that a MUP brings wide-ranging community benefits.