Put A Cork In It, Mr Rudd – You’re Missing The Point

Very quickly, Kevin Rudd has set the tone for his first term. His is a government that doesn’t just want to govern, it wants to parent.

Health Minister Nicola Roxon announced earlier this week that the taxes on alcopops – canned or bottled spirits premixed with soft drink – were to be doubled.

The tax increase was announced as a response to the 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey. But the survey reported that not only has binge-drinking among young females remained steady over the past few years, but the number of those who were endangering their long-term health had actually decreased slightly. If there is a binge-drinking crisis, as the Government claims, then it appears to be one which is resolving itself.

Nevertheless, since the federal election, booze has become a bread-and-butter issue of high politics. But the Government’s policy is based on a big leap of logic. Why will raising the price of alcopops result in healthier teenagers? Invariably, government policies have consequences unintended by the politicians who design them.

Certainly, the tax increase might reduce the amount of alcopops sold. Like most products, the demand for alcopops is elastic – that is, if the price goes up, some people who would have bought the drinks at a lower price may now choose not to. But those customers for whom the pre-mixed drinks are now too expensive can easily replace them with other alcoholic beverages. There is no shortage of choice in your average neighbourhood bottle shop.

After all, for a teenager looking to spend an evening drinking with friends, the choice isn’t between alcopops and a healthy glass of water. Would, for instance, the Federal Government prefer teenage children to try to mix their own drinks? It is not easy to estimate the safe ratio of spirits to soft drink while you are at a loud and crowded house party, slightly tipsy and leaning over a kitchen bench trying to pour cheap vodka into a plastic cup.

When alcohol is bottled in premeasured quantities, it is easy for teenagers to gauge just how much they are drinking. The Federal Government might be making it harder for teenagers to regulate their own alcohol consumption. If even a single teenager has to get their stomach pumped because they now have no idea how much they’re drinking, this policy will have been an abject failure.

When teenagers are unable to afford pre-mixed drinks, they will move on to their next choice of alcohol. If politicians increase the tax on every alcoholic beverage – as the Government’s advisers are publicly recommending – then teens may move to taking other, non-alcoholic drugs when they are socialising.

There is another possible unintended consequence of the tax increase that is even more worrying. When a new range of pre-mixed drinks was released earlier this decade, alcohol manufacturers asserted that young drinkers felt safer drinking out of bottles because they were harder to spike with date-rape drugs.

That claim may or may not be true. But it should at the very least remind us that when teenagers choose to buy their alcohol pre-mixed, they often do so for complex and personal reasons – not merely because they have been conned into doing so by stylish ad campaigns.

The alcopop tax increase is the first to come into effect of the many sin taxes that have been flagged by the new Government and its advisory bodies. The federal preventative health task force has now called for taxes on all alcohol to be increased by 300%, and a similar increase to be imposed on tobacco taxes. And the best and brightest summiteers were eager that the Government tax junk food.

When you add to this list last month’s proposed bans on alcohol and candy advertising, it becomes clear that few individual decisions are immune from the disapproval of the Rudd Government.

The left used to ridicule John Howard’s attraction to the moral universe of the 1950s. But the Labor Party is trying to introduce a new moral code that is just as severe – one which is designed to scare parents into supporting the Government’s policies. Don’t worry – Kevin Rudd is working just as hard to look after your children as you are.

But this anti-binge drinking campaign is not very well thought out. Artificially changing people’s behaviour isn’t that easy. Too often it makes the original problem worse.