This opinion piece was originally published in The Mercury, Friday 2 April 2021 under the heading – Reach out if you want to cut back
Alcohol holds a firm place in our community – it is how we celebrate and how we commiserate.
With this in mind, on the eve of the Easter holiday weekend when most of us take a break, recharge and gather as families, it is important that we remind ourselves that how much we drink is a health issue.
At Easter time, when more people are on our roads and often driving in unfamiliar environments, it is equally important to consider road safety and the dangers of drink driving for yourself and other road users.
While we have come a long way with anti-drink driving messages and mainstream media campaigns about the dangers of drink driving and the resulting road trauma, we can always do more.
Simply, if you know you are going to be drinking alcohol, leave your car at home and get a taxi or Uber, appoint a designated driver or arrange for someone who has not been drinking to pick you up to take you home.
More broadly, and outside of the traditional holiday periods, people turn to alcohol at times of stress, uncertainty and boredom.
It is in this context that I was not surprised to see recently that alcohol retail sales had reached record levels during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
A report by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, found alcohol retail turnover across Australia went up dramatically during the early stages of the pandemic lockdown, and remained high for the rest of 2020.
In Tasmania, in March last year when we first into lockdown, turnover was $35.7 million, $8.4 million more than March 2019.
In the middle of the lockdown period in July 2020 the figure was $8 million higher than July the previous year and in December, when Tasmanians spent more than $50.3 million on alcohol, that was $5 million more than December 2019.
It confirmed what we suspected at the time when we said “…we wanted people to be careful about how much they were drinking at home.”
And, anecdotally, my local alcohol retailer told me sales were “going off the charts”.
The retail turnover figures certainly point to that.
So if we know Tasmanians have been buying more alcohol, and our suspicions are correct that they’ve been drinking more than normal, we need to enter this Easter break with a heightened awareness about how much we plan to drink knowing that people are likely to increase their drinking on-top off already high levels.
On the flip-side of this, it is pleasing that Tasmanians are seeking support.
In December 2020, we are aware that there were more than 1,200 Tasmanians supported by specialist alcohol, tobacco and other drug health services and close to half of them were accessing support for their drinking.
If over the Easter break you find yourself considering reaching out for support I want to assure you that it is available.
But I need to be honest and flag that it is likely that you may be put on a waiting list.
Depending on where you live, you could be waiting up to eight weeks to access counselling or up to four months to access a residential rehabilitation program.
We have been having regular, ongoing conversations with the Tasmanian Government regarding the investment required for community managed alcohol, tobacco and other drug services to address these waiting lists.
My organisation is working hard to ensure that the Tasmanian community is provided with access to the services needed to assist those ready to start reduce their drinking levels, or any other issues with substance use as soon as they make that call.
While we continue to have these critical conversations, I am hearing that some Tasmanians are walking away from support because they simply don’t want to wait.
I want to urge anyone contemplating seeking support to not be deterred.
Those working in our community organisations delivering specialist alcohol treatment and support services are highly trained professionals, and they know that for many people, one of the hardest things to do is pick up the phone or walk through the door and ask for support, and they will stay connected with you until it is time for your appointment.
So this Easter, raise a glass and enjoy your time with family and friends but do so safely and if you decide to pick up the phone or connect online for support – do not hesitate.
CEO, Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Council Tasmania