Tuesday, 08 September 2015

Nick Cater's weekly column in The Australian 

It’s a measure of progress for the Abbott government that, for the first time in decades, the moralisers are in retreat. Through the years the creeping fingers of the state have insinuated themselves into parts of everyday life where they have no business. Now they are being slapped back into place.

The defunct National Partnership Agreement on Preventive Health is missed by no one except the professional do-gooders who were dipping into its $370 million honey pot.

The Australian National Preventive Health Agency and its ineffective campaigns against binge drinking have been absorbed by the Department of Health. With a bit of luck it will never be heard from again.

The public health lobby’s ­politicised agenda became evident after Joe Hockey’s friendless 2014 budget. Surely these tireless advocates for improved national health would have welcomed the allocation of $20 billion for medical research. Sadly not. Professor of public health policy Mike Daube called it “a distressing budget for anyone concerned for the community’s health”. It was “a dark day for Australia’s health and health services, and ­especially for prevention”.

The Grattan Institute’s Stephen Duckett welcomed what he called “a positive move for research” but was unable to leave it at that. “There will be few researchers who will like where the money is coming from,” he said.

It would be impertinent to presume where the good professors’ political sympathies lie, but one suspects they are not natural Liberal voters. It is hardly surprising. The public health lobby is welded to the Left because, like the rest of the technocratic blob that depends on government largesse, it has learned not to bite the hand that feeds it. Labor and the Greens have become the preventive health industry’s bosom chums because, on the whole, they are better disposed to ­bureaucratic interference and regulation than the Liberals.

Choice and personal responsibility are not qualities the public health lobby much cares for. Its modus operandi is to regulate, tax and nudge. But after decades of growth, the nanny state is facing concerted opposition from liberal-minded warriors such as David Leyonhjelm. The accidental senator’s parliamentary inquiry into laws that restrict personal choice “for the individual’s own good” is gathering pace, and the po-faced finger-waggers are incensed.

The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, a modern-day abstinence movement that managed to jag $115m of taxpayers’ money, has responded with eight more proposals to fight the demon drink. None of them requires the exercise of willpower. Instead, it is the government that must sign the pledge, committing to yet more intrusive and ineffective measures to save society from ­itself.

The alcohol tax system must be reformed, says FARE, which presumably means taxes should rise. A proportion of the revenue should be used “to address the social harms caused by alcohol consumption in order to modify health behaviours and maximise the benefits to the community”.

You get the picture. FARE wants the government to gouge more money from drinkers and give it to the do-gooders, such as FARE, for example. It wants to run more campaigns that infantilise problem drinkers, excusing them of responsibility for their behaviour and making it the responsibility of government. In the old days, drinkers squirted their money up against the wall. Now the government does it for them, levelling extortionate taxes on booze buyers to fund schemes to make them better people. Temperance campaigners once had the decency to shake the tin. Now they want the government to dip its fingers in your pocket and hand them the cash.

Yet, incredibly, the anti-booze zealots insist drinkers are not paying their way. They commission fanciful reports claiming the social cost of alcohol is far greater than the money raised in alcohol taxes. A report in Britain refutes this. The Institute of Economic Affairs’ Christopher Snowdon found the direct costs of alcohol to government in England was not £20bn ($43.9bn) a year, as crusaders claimed, but £3.9bn a year. Since the government raises £10.4bn from taxes on alcohol, drinkers are subsidising non-drinkers to the tune of £6.5bn a year.

Studies by public health campaigners consistently over-estimate the cost of alcohol to the health, criminal justice and welfare systems. They also fail to distinguish between economic costs (mostly paid by individuals and businesses) and the accounting cost to government departments.

It would be interesting to transfer Snowdon’s methodology here. You can bet your wine cellar the cost of alcohol use is considerably less than the $36bn “social cost” FARE claims. How does FARE arrive at a figure equivalent to three-quarters of the federal health budget?

Basically, it makes stuff up. For example, $6.39bn is attributed to “pain and suffering from diminished quality of life”. Sure, alcohol makes some lives wretched, but the faux precision of the figures fails the pub test. Ditto the $9.3bn “cost of time lost” and $1.888bn for “resources used in abusive consumption”. Loss of life is valued at an improbable $4.621bn. Yet the macabre truth is premature death saves money. The ambulances that won’t be called and hospital beds that won’t be occupied by the dear departed save the rest of us a fortune.

And what of the benefits of ­alcohol? Did the wowsers at FARE put a dollar value on the enjoyment it brings, the employment it creates, the reduction in cardiovascular risk, the clubs that support local communities, the tourism, the exports? Any fair-minded cost-benefit analysis also would include the cost of the subsidies received by the anti-­alcohol lobby, specifically the tax exemptions granted on the grounds of their supposed charitable status. The government is on to that. It will be included in the tax white paper and is being investigated by a parliamentary inquiry.

It will be interesting to see how the advocates so keen on taxing the rest of us react to paying a little tax themselves.






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