At the end of last year, the South Australian Government released its alcohol and other drug strategy for 2017-2021. Encounter Youth provided a submission in the consultation phase of the strategy and is particularly interested in what some of the new focus areas mean for young people.
Why do we need an alcohol and other drug strategy?
The strategy lays out SA’s “overall direction and principles for reducing alcohol and other drug harm…”. The SA Government has had an alcohol and other drug strategy in place since 1997, which is updated every 5 years. Since 1997, we have seen significant declines in the use of alcohol and other drugs, particularly among young people1,2. This has led to reduced alcohol and other drug-related harm. The updated strategy aims to continue this trend, specifically to “reduce the harms caused by alcohol and other drug problems to the South Australian community”. The strategy also gives insights into the key avenues that the SA government will be pursuing in regards to alcohol and other drug use in the community for the next five years.
How will the SA alcohol and other drug strategy achieve it’s aim?
There are five main objectives outlined in the policy that all contribute to reducing alcohol and other drug-related harm.
1. Reduce alcohol-related harm
The first, and arguably the most important objective is to reduce alcohol-related harm. The majority of actions under this objective revolve around implementing the changes recommended in the review of the Liquor Licensing Act 1997. This is a process that Encounter Youth have been following for the past 18 months and you can read about some of the key changes in our earlier blogs here and here. Briefly, the SA Government will be pursuing changes to alcohol advertising and the supply of alcohol to young people. They will also work with SA Health to improve treatment of people suffering from alcohol-related harm. All of these are positive actions and will serve to reduce alcohol-related harm. However, the actions all appear to be focused on reducing the levels of alcohol consumption and associated harms, among people already choosing to drink. In our submission, we recommended a greater focus on education and support services to increase the average age at which people begin drinking. We have seen first-hand the positive impact that effective alcohol and other drug education can make on young people’s choices through our Party Safe Education program. Our experience with young people through the Schoolies Operation and our Hindley Street Program also show the value of positively engaging with young people to reduce alcohol-related harm. Although our recommendation was not adopted under this objective, the final alcohol and other drug strategy included various educational strategies for young people under Objective 2.
2. Reduce the impact of alcohol and other drug problems on children, young people and families
One of the strengths of this alcohol and other drug strategy is the specific focus on young people. Objective 2 focuses on identifying families who are at-risk and providing education or interventions to reduce alcohol or other drug-related harm. There is a strong emphasis on child protection, health and wellbeing. Whilst approximately half of the actions under Objective 2 deal with reducing harm among people who currently use alcohol and/or other drugs, these are balanced with other proactive education approaches. We believe that this objective has significant potential to continue the downward trend of alcohol use, particularly among young people, which is great news!
3. Reduce the harms associated with illicit drugs and hazardous and harmful use of pharmaceutical drugs
Reducing the use and harm caused by illicit drugs has been a focus for pretty much every alcohol and other drug strategy. Illicit drugs can, and do, cause significant harm. However, the point of difference in this strategy is the inclusion of pharmaceutical drugs. We believe this is a very positive development. The use of illicit drugs in Australia has remained stable for a number of years but the misuse of pharmaceutical drugs has been slowly rising. However, pharmaceuticals are not often discussed or considered when people talk about ‘drug issues’. One very common misconception we come across as we speak to people in the community, is the idea that illicit drugs are dangerous and pharmaceuticals (or medications) are safe. At first glance, it seems like an sensible opinion to hold. However, it is simplistic and as such, there are a few problems with it.
Firstly, illicit drugs are dangerous, but much of the danger comes from the clandestine nature by which they are produced, or the way they are consumed; not necessarily from the active substance itself. Harm reduction programs such as needle exchanges and drug checking have been consistently shown to reduce the danger posed by illicit drugs. On the flip side, pharmaceuticals are generally safer than illicit drugs, but only if they are taken as directed. More people need an ambulance for an overdose of painkillers or sleeping pills than any illicit drug3. Paracetamol (panadol) is the also the number one cause of liver failure in many developed countries4.
The inclusion of a focus on pharmaceutical drugs in the strategy will help to ensure that pharmaceutical misuse is considered when planning drug education, interventions and treatment programs. We are particularly interested in the SA Government’s intention to support a real-time prescription monitoring system. This was one of the key recommendations we made in our submission regarding the misuse of pharmaceuticals.
The illicit drug focus is largely typical of previous drug strategies, with an emphasis on reducing supply through police, customs and border force. However, there are also several actions which focus on improving health access for people who use illicit drugs and diversion opportunities for those in the justice system. These are positive developments and will hopefully continue the trend towards support and treatment rather than simply incarceration.
4. Reduce the harms of alcohol and other drug problems to Aboriginal people
Whilst Aboriginal Australians are more likely than the non-Aboriginal population to choose not to drink, those that do are more likely to drink at risky levels1. This is appropriately noted in the strategy. Objective 4 details actions that encourage the development of education, treatment and support services that are culturally respectful and engaging. Furthermore, it includes steps to actively engage the Aboriginal community in the planning and implementation of new initiatives and increase the proportion of Aboriginal people in the alcohol and other drug sector workforce. We believe these steps are positive and important in shaping the strategy to consider the needs of Aboriginal Australians.
5. Improve access to evidence that informs practice
The final objective focuses on improving the evidence base for alcohol and other drug services in SA. It includes actions to expand monitoring of drug use through wastewater analysis and the collection of data from Aboriginal communities, ambulance services, and treatment and welfare services. Free access to accurate and reliable data will be critical in designing evidence-based services in the future. We are excited about this objective and are looking forward to the changes that will come with a greater and more accurate evidence base.
At Encounter Youth, we would have liked to see a greater emphasis on education and positive engagement strategies in regards to alcohol and illicit drugs. Overall, however, the strategy includes many positive steps in the right direction. We believe that this strategy has great potential to improve community safety, particularly among people who choose to use alcohol and/or other drugs. We are looking forward to continuing our partnerships with the SA Government in the alcohol and other drug field, in line with the new strategy.
Have you got a question about the new alcohol and other drug strategy? Ask us now!
1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2014, “National Drug Strategy Household Survey detailed report 2013”, Drug statistics series no. 28, Cat. No. PHE 183, Canberra: AIHW
2. White, V. and Williams, T., 2016, “Australian secondary school students’ use of tobacco, alcohol, and over-the-counter and illicit substances in 2014” Drug Strategy Branch, Australian Department of Health: Canberra
3. Lloyd B., Matthews S., Gao C. X., Heilbronn C., Beck, D., 2015, “Trends in alcohol and drug related ambulance attendances in Victoria: 2013/14”, Fitzroy, Victoria: Turning Point
4. Kalsi, S., Dargan, P., Waring, W., Wood, D., 2011, “A review of the evidence concerning hepatic glutathione depletion and susceptibility to hepatotoxicity after paracetamol overdose”, Journal of Open Access Emergency Medicine, 3, 87-96