Australia warns against homebrew Vegemite alcohol drinks

Australia warns against homebrew Vegemite alcohol drinks
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SYDNEY- Australia's indigenous affairs minister warned Sunday about the use of popular spread Vegemite to make homebrew liquor in remote communities where alcohol is banned, describing it as a "precursor to misery".

The sticky spread, made from yeast extract, is an Australian icon and similar to its British cousin Marmite.

But in some remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory where liquor is banned to stem alcohol-related problems, minister Nigel Scullion had heard of Vegemite being used to concoct the homebrew, his spokeswoman told AFP.

"Addiction of any type is a concern but communities, especially where alcohol is banned, must work to ensure home brewing of this type does not occur," Scullion said in a statement.

"Businesses in these communities also have a responsibility to report any purchase that may raise their own suspicions." He added to The Sunday Mail newspaper in Brisbane that the homebrew was a "precursor to misery" and children in some communities had missed school as they were too hungover from all-night benders.

The Mail said Vegemite was being made into alcohol in large quantities such as in bathtubs in backyards.

The minister stopped short, however, of placing restrictions or bans on the sale of the spread or other yeast-based products in such communities.

Other sources of homebrew liquor have included mouthwash and vanilla extract, the spokeswoman added.

No sales ban

The head of Queensland police's union told the newspaper he had also seen Vegemite being used for brewing illegal alcohol in the state's Aboriginal communities.

"While we cannot just go out and ban everything that could possibly be used to make illegal alcohol, at the same time common sense needs to take place and if people are purchasing large quantities of an item that could be used for brewing illegal alcohol, questions should always be asked," the union's president Ian Leavers said.

Some 19 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Queensland have alcohol bans or restrictions. Under the state's laws, making homebrew is an offence in communities where alcohol is banned.

Aborigines, the most disadvantaged Australians, are believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement.

There are now just 470,000 out of a total population of 23 million, and they suffer disproportionate levels of disease, imprisonment and social problems as well as significantly lower education, employment and life expectancy.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott also ruled out a ban of the spread, saying Sunday he did not want a "Vegemite watch".

"The last thing it want to see is a Vegemite watch going on because Vegemite, quite properly, is for most people a reasonably nutritious spread on your morning toast or on your sandwiches," he told reporters in Queensland.

A 2010 report by government body the Australian Institute of Criminology found that "alcohol is now regarded as one, if not the, primary risk factor for violence in indigenous communities".

The report said that while the percentage of alcohol users within the indigenous population was similar to the non-indigenous population, they were more likely to engage in binge drinking.

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