Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Tobacco, alcohol top the drug abuse toll

Tobacco and alcohol accounted for 83 per cent of the cost of drug abuse in Australia, dwarfing the financial impact of illegal drugs, a Commonwealth Government report has found.

It estimates that in 1998-99, tobacco accounted for $21 billion, or 60 per cent, of the costs of drugs to individuals, business and government, and alcohol made up $7.5 billion, or 22 per cent.

One of the report's authors, David Collins, a professor of economics at Macquarie University, said that the report had measured, for the first time, the cost of passive smoking to the community.

"A lot of the impact of ... involuntary smoking is on the unborn child, and on children under 14 years - it hits the young very hard because they have no control over their lives," he said.

Measuring hospital bed days, other health care costs and deaths in 1998-99, the report found involuntary smoking cost the community $47 million."Tobacco is still the greatest killer by far and imposes the greatest costs," Professor Collins said.

The cost of fires resulting from smoking was put at $81 million.

"The message from this report is that the costs [of drug use] are so high the potential benefit of a small reduction is substantial," Professor Collins said. "Anti-tobacco programs yield very high rates of return.

The problem of alcohol use was more complex, because it had beneficial as well as damaging effects on drinkers.

"If you reduce alcohol consumption you may reduce the benefits," Professor Collins said. "That said, people should not be encouraged to binge drink. It is moderate, low level consumption that provides the benefit."

The report estimates that in 1998-99, alcohol caused 4286 deaths.

The costs of drug use include both the tangible - crime, policing, cancer, hospital bed days, car accidents, death, fires, loss of productivity, less tax revenue - and the intangible, such as pain and suffering due to illness and death.

The information officer for the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, Paul Dillon, said experts had been aware for some time that alcohol and tobacco were the biggest cause of drug-related problems and costs. But there was a vast gap between the reality and public perception.

"People really do perceive that illicit drugs are the major issue ... [and] they don't actually want to acknowledge that their drug of choice is really problematic," he said. "For most Australians those drugs will be legal drugs."

The Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association said the report was a wake-up call for all governments to expand drug treatment and prevention programs.

[What about labels warning potential customers and taxpayers of the dangers?]

Professor Collins said the costs contained in the report were conservative calculations, and represented only minimum costs. "The real figures could be much higher."

By Legal Drugs, Health Writer Jan 21 03

THE DUCK: Whatever you do just don't smoke or drink alcohol! QUACK


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