10 Apr, 2015 Last updated: 24 Jun, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

Opinion piece first published on the Herald Sun website on 9 April 2015.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter

We've heard a lot about alcohol, and its role in our culture, these past few weeks.

On our television screens we saw old-school attitudes to alcohol from former cricketers and morning talk shows discuss the role of alcohol in our lives, while this paper revealed the latest attempt to make alcohol available in another form through powdered alcohol.

Then the Harper Review recommended relaxing laws that ban supermarkets from selling alcohol directly in-store.

Like many of us, I enjoy an occasional drink. And I don't have to go far to find somewhere to purchase alcohol. In fact, alcohol is more available now than ever before in Victoria. The number of bottle shops has more than doubled in the past 20 years, and trading hours have been extended. Well into the night, you’ll find somewhere to buy alcohol.

And, while most of us drink responsibly, harmful levels of drinking are creating serious health, social and economic impacts felt right across the community. Over the Easter break alone, Victoria Police detected 318 drink-drivers who put their lives, and the lives of other road users, at risk. We see the devastating impacts of alcohol harm every day.

VicHealth research has shown that Victorians with eight or more takeaway alcohol outlets within one kilometre of their homes are twice as likely to binge-drink.

A 21 per cent increase in the number of licensed premises in Victoria between 2003 and 2012 contributed to a 28 per cent increase in the rate of medical treatment for alcohol-related episodes, and a doubling of ambulance attendances. Rates of alcohol-related intimate partner violence are more likely to be exacerbated by the number of bottle shops within suburban areas.

People living in the poorest areas of Victoria – where there are up to six times more bottle shops in their neighbourhoods than those who are well-off – are most vulnerable to alcohol harms.

The link between alcohol and injury, violence and over 200 physical and mental illnesses is indisputable. In fact, alcohol is one of the top 10 avoidable causes of disease and death in Victoria and costs the community $4.3 billion every year.

Extending the sale and display of alcohol to supermarket shelves just doesn't make sense when we're faced with these problems.

By lining our supermarket aisles with alcohol alongside everyday products like milk, cereals and juices, we risk sending a message to children in particular that alcohol is a harmless everyday product and further increase children’s and young people’s exposure to alcohol and alcohol promotion. And yet we know that exposure to alcohol advertising, including on the sports field, influences their beliefs and attitudes about drinking, and increases the likelihood that teenagers will not only start drinking earlier, but drink more.

We also know that "pre-loading" at home or at someone else’s house before a night out – is a common, but dangerous practice. We need to ask what it is about our culture that drives and even excuses this behaviour when alcohol is so harmful to health. The wide availability of cheap packaged alcohol has contributed to this culture; surely we don’t need to encourage it by making alcohol readily available in every supermarket in our community?

VicHealth is trying to change Victoria's drinking culture, and how we view the role of alcohol in our lives.

We want to see a Victoria where everyone can have an enjoyable and safe night – a culture where we don’t feel as though getting drunk is necessary to have a good time.

Every week we’re reminded of some of the outdated and harmful attitudes around drinking and celebration. The community conversation in response to this has shown that we’re all thirsty for change and that is something to be commended.

- Jerril