Australia, an intoxicated society: 40 years on from the Baume Report

Alcohol Public health Alcohol harms Australia

Forty years ago, a progressive and prescient Senate Committee report identified alcohol and its harms as a problem of epidemic proportions.

In 1977 the Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare released its report, Drug Problems in Australia – an intoxicated society? The report is often referred to as the Baume Report since the Committee was chaired by Peter Baume, a physician and then Senator for New South Wales (NSW).

Peter Baume spoke of the report’s legacy in 1984, saying that “one thing that our report did was to alter, for the present anyhow, and I hope for all time, the public debate about drug use in Australia. The public agenda now includes use of legal drugs...” He added that “the press is now willing to promote health and to promote moderation and to consider the use of legal drugs as part of our problem. All this represents some degree of progress across the spectrum.

The report has also been described as the “ancestral document to today’s National Drug Strategy,” which has at its heart ‘harm minimisation’ instead of a ‘war on drugs’. This is an enduring legacy.

A 2002 review of Australian drug policy stated that the “practicality articulated by Peter Baume is often cited as a cornerstone of the Australian approach and one that differentiates it from other approaches.”

It is rare that Parliamentary inquiry reports are remembered, let alone have enduring impact: Baume’s report is an exception.

In initiating the inquiry the Committee resolved on its own motion to examine ‘the extent and nature of the inappropriate use of alcohol, tobacco, narcotics and other drugs’ in Australia. This study provides a high-level overview of progress made over the last 40 years against the report’s 37 alcohol specific recommendations.

The study finds a majority of the recommendations remain relevant today, even though Australia has greatly changed over these 40 years. These include changes in our understanding of alcohol and the nature of harm, changed patterns of drinking, and broader societal, legislative and economic developments within and beyond the realm of alcohol.

This study shows some progress in alcohol policy over the last 40 years, but not much. Of the 37 alcohol-specific recommendations, 12 were implemented in full, some action was taken against 16, and no progress was made against nine. Action on drink-driving countermeasures stands out as the most successful area. Of the 13 related recommendations, eight recommendations have been implemented in full and some progress has been made against the remaining five.

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