The recent coronial inquest into the deaths of three petrol sniffers in two Northern Territory communities made national headlines when, in a dramatic illustration of medium as message, a woman brought her petrol-sniffing son to the outdoor hearing at Mutitjulu. The following day, a close-up photo of Steven Uluru with a container of petrol clamped to his face appeared on the front page of The Australian.
Petrol sniffing is one of those subjects that periodically seize headlines. Who can forget Paul Toohey’s Weekend Australian article, “Another generation stolen by the fumes”, which brought petrol sniffing in remote central Australian committees to the nation’s attention in 2000? There is an insidious “sexiness” about petrol sniffing as an issue, in its ability to captivate sudden media attention, then disappear onto the backlog of policy issues once again.
Why the perennial fascination with petrol sniffing? The youthfulness of some sniffers, the degree of physical and mental incapacitation, and the violence and destruction in communities that can accompany petrol sniffing all no doubt contribute to its shock value. However, there are many other sources of dysfunction and compromised health in remote communities. A far greater burden of morbidity and mortality is associated with grog and even tobacco across the Aboriginal population.
Despite the sense of drama and despair accompanying this issue, if there was a substance misuse problem that could be contained, it should be petrol sniffing. The numbers of sniffers are small: current estimates put sniffers in central Australia at approximately 700. Although petrol sniffing occurs across an extensive tri-state region in central Australia, this is also a geographically remote and discrete area to which the supply of petrol could conceivably be blocked.
Previous inquests have advocated the use of supply reduction strategies such as the introduction of “non-sniffable” petrol, accompanied by appropriate rehabilitation and treatment strategies and youth services in order to make significant inroads into this problem. However, progress across these fronts has been slow and none of these recommendations have been fully implemented since the last inquest into petrol sniffing in the Northern Territory nearly a decade ago, and two subsequent inquests relating to deaths on the Anangu-Pitjantjatjara lands held in South Australia.
Recently OPAL (pdf file 242KB), a new “non-sniffable” petrol developed by BP, which does not damage car engines like some earlier petrol substitutes, was introduced into a handful of remote communities in central Australia through a Commonwealth Government subsidy. However, in order for a supply reduction strategy such as OPAL to be effective, it needs to be applied on a blanket basis across the region, or the problem will merely be transferred as sniffers drift to other communities with petrol.
A simple cost benefit analysis highlights the benefits of extending the OPAL subsidy. There is a price difference of about $0.33 cents per litre between OPAL and regular fuel. Estimates for an extension of the current subsidy across central Australia, including Tennant Creek in the north, Alice Springs in the centre and Cooper Pedy in the south, put the overall cost at approximately at $8-10 million. By contrast, 120 sniffers are likely to acquire brain damage in the next few years in the Northern Territory. According to the Northern Territory Department of Health and Community Services, the average health cost of caring for each of them is $200,000 a year, and in some cases up to $750,000 a year.
While OPAL is not an “endpoint” for addressing petrol sniffing problems, the potential benefits of the extension of current subsidy to act as an immediate circuit breaker deserve serious consideration. Drastic measures are necessary to address drastic problems. A supply reduction strategy such as the blanket application of OPAL might deliver the necessary reprieve to start addressing some of the underlying factors, such as hunger, poverty, illness, low education levels, almost total unemployment, boredom and general feelings of hopelessness that “form the environment in which such self-destructive [as petrol sniffing] behaviour takes place”.
During the recent Inquest hearings, Prime Minister John Howard and two of his senior ministers expressed considerable reluctance to give OPAL their wholehearted support. On the evening of August 12, ABC Radio in the Northern Territory ran the following grab from the prime minister as its lead news bulletin: “Petrol sniffers must take responsibility for their own problems.”
This statement chilled me; I thought these words were harsh and ignorant. The news story revealed that while Prime Minister Howard claimed to be recommending a “holistic solution” to the problem of petrol sniffing, he suggested that "[u]ltimately the solution to the problem is in the hands of the communities, as much as it is in the hands of governments".
No one can doubt that increased social and economic participation, accompanied by greater control over their own destinies, is a worthy goal for Aboriginal communities. But whether it is appropriate to trot out the well-worn, simple-minded cliché of “let them take responsibility” once again in the face of a problem such as petrol sniffing is another question. In his 2002 findings from the inquests into three petrol sniffers’ deaths in South Australia, Coroner Chivell identified the failure of both federal and state governments to provide adequate services on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara lands as a major factor contributing to the problems associated with, and leading to, petrol sniffing. He also urged that there be national support for addressing this issue:
The fact that the wider Australian community has a responsibility to assist Anangu to address the problem of petrol sniffing, which has no precedent in traditional culture, is clear. Governments should not approach the task on the basis that the solutions must come from Anangu communities alone.