Opinion: Should Alcohol be Plainly Packaged?

Freelance Work, Journalism, Opinion

October 25, 2012


With the tobacco plain packaging law about to come into effect it is time for alcohol to follow suit.

Alcohol advertising has turned our society into a drinking culture. It’s time we started treating alcohol for what it is – a drug.

“The harm resulting from alcohol is now right up there with the harm from tobacco,” says Simone Pettigrew, Director of the Health Promotion Evaluation Unit and Professor at the University of Wollongong. “It’s one of the biggest killers we have in our society.”

Products like alcopops and vodka cruisers use fancy labels and designs to attract impressionable young drinkers. Surely we’ve witnessed enough drunken tragedies to realise the negative role alcohol plays in youth violence?

It’s time to stop glamourising drinking. Putting a plain packaging law in place would be one step closer to solving the issue of drunken adolescents.

In 2005 the National Drug Research Institute showed there were over 2-million alcohol-related hospitalisations compared to 15,000 deaths attributed to smoking. Australia is the first nation in the world to introduce mandatory plain packaging of tobacco – let’s be the first to do the same with alcohol.

Lance Barrie from the University of Wollongong says, “It’s not so much about the labels themselves that are being promoted.” Well what is it about then? Why can’t we do away with the fancy logos and fruity colours? If not for the labels then why have plain packaging laws not been introduced already?

Of course it’s about the labels. Alcohol producers want people to buy their products. And they’ve somehow got the rest of us convinced that increased drinking risk is worth their higher profit margins.

Not only would we be saving the lives of those affected by alcohol, we would be helping the rest of the community too. David Templeman, CEO of Alcohol and Drugs Council of Australia, says police spend half their time dealing with alcohol related incidents.

“That becomes even more problematic for police on a Friday and a Saturday night where it actually ramps up to around 80%. And that also mirrors in regards to emergency departments.”

Stephen Riden from the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia says the main motive behind packaging is getting people to swap brands.

“It comes back to this false notion the health industry has that people drink because the packages are attractive.”

But the issue is not whether people want to drink alcohol – it’s that they shouldn’t. 21 Australians die every week from alcohol-related causes according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2010.

If every bottle you bought had a white label with the type of alcohol, number of standard drinks and a government warning message that figure would drop dramatically. Buying alcohol should be like buying any other kind of drug – it’s the contents that should matter, not the packaging.

Some of the arguments against plain packaging are that it will encourage illicit smuggling. “If you get rid of brands, or identifying labels, it’s very easy for gangs to distil their own vodka and whiskey,” says Mr Riden.

This argument is ridiculous on so many levels – for one thing plain packaging wouldn’t get rid of brands, just the colourful pictures. And I don’t think the hardest thing when setting up an illegal alcohol production plant is finding a printer.

Four-in-five Australians believe we are a nation with a drinking problem (Alcohol Education Rehabilitation Foundation poll, 2011). As a society we need to stop romanticizing alcohol. And the first step toward that goal is by introducing plain packaging.


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