WA News Letters Tax Alcohol Equally
Tax Alcohol Equally
Written by Dr Michael Christmass
Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Dear Editor,

Dr Ralph Longhorn’s Guest Column Road Less Travelled (While Sober) (December) was a welcome prompt to consider our own relationship with alcohol. It also highlighted the pervasiveness of alcohol as component of Australian identity. On reflection, it reminded me of the important role we have, as health care professionals, to effect positive change in alcohol public policy.

My work place is situated near an inner city park. Substance misuse and social disadvantage are on daily display here, along with remains of cheap alcohol containers. In Australia, one can buy four litres of wine for $10 and a litre of bottled water might cost $3.08. But we know higher alcohol prices are linked to lower alcohol consumption and fewer alcohol-related harms (e.g. dependence, trauma, crime, death due to cirrhosis). So why is wine so cheap?

Australia has an inconsistent approach to alcohol taxation with an ad valorum tax (so-called Wine Equalisation Tax [WET]) on wine but a volumetric tax on beer and spirits. Thus, cask wine (12.5% alcohol) is taxed at 5 cents per standard drink compared to beer (3% alcohol) at 32 cents. Other examples exist but the main point here is the discrepancy between tax payable and amount of pure alcohol purchased.

Evidence suggests a public health approach to alcohol taxation, focused on reducing alcohol-related harms, should include a minimum price with a volumetric tax on all products. The Federal Government’s own taxation review was critical of the WET and recommended a volumetric tax on all alcohol products. The National Preventative Health Taskforce, implemented by the Federal Government, also disapproved of the WET and suggested a tiered volumetric tax and minimum alcohol price.

Despite the evidence, and multiple costly reviews, it seems we are no closer to minimum pricing or volumetric taxation. Of course, taxation is by no means the only public health issue involving alcohol. Advertising to children and adolescents in televised sport and the so-called ‘lockout’ laws are others that come to mind.

Dr Longhorn’s article reflects on a personal relationship with alcohol. Perhaps this is an important starting point in developing the political will, as a health-care community, to advocate for public policy change?

Dr Michael Christmass, Next Step Alcohol and Drug Service

References on request