Illicit alcohol trade exploits indigenous people in Australia

Australian researchers have found that criminals are using sophisticated tactics to smuggle illicit alcohol into indigenous communities.

The team from James Cook University say that the 'sly grog' traders are selling alcohol from four to six times, and sometimes up to 11 times, its legal retail price, with the drink bought from licensed premises a long way away from the communities and smuggled using various methods.

They found that illicit suppliers carefully watched busy local police officers, warning others bringing alcohol into the area while also "using decoy vehicles and false reports of suicides and accidents to divert police resources."

JCU's Professor Alan Clough led a team that interviewed more than 380 people living and working in remote indigenous communities in Queensland where there was either a total or partial alcohol ban. Illicit suppliers were motivated by a sustained demand for alcohol and consumers' willingness to pay inflated prices.

One of the team, researcher Dr Michelle Fitts, said: "I heard reports of people bringing in illicit alcohol at night, without headlights, at speed, on unsealed roads and bush tracks, with vehicles heavily loaded with alcohol and people."

Clough said the initial achievements in communities under alcohol restrictions have been undermined over time so that alcohol is likely to remain a lead contributor to the high rates of premature death and avoidable disease, crime, violence and injuries.

"At the moment, the 'bulk sales register' used by liquor stores is the only form of documentation for bulk takeaway sales. It's paper-based and this limits its capacity to be readily accessed by enforcement," he said.

"Also, the current regulations fail to cover licensees in a sufficiently wide catchment area since our evidence shows that 'sly grog' sellers are willing to travel very long distances to circumvent liquor licensing conditions."

Clough and Fitts agree there also needs to be a clearer legal distinction between illicit traders and consumers, with organised smugglers often receiving punishments similar to those found in possession of prohibited types of alcohol for their own use.

"To be effective, alcohol supply controls must also go hand-in-hand with initiatives that address the demand for alcohol and the broad social determinants underlying alcohol misuse," he said.

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