Sunday, July 21, 2024

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HomeIssue 46Central Australia's new export industry: saving kids' lives

Central Australia's new export industry: saving kids' lives

Petrol sniffing, once one of the greatest sources of misery in Central Australia, has turned into a success story.
The strategy of how to all but eradicate the scourge was developed, promoted and implemented by a small Alice Springs based team attached to Tangentyere Council, the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service (CAYLUS).
In the next few days its head, Blair McFarland, will be meeting with SA Substance Abuse Minister, John Hill, and his WA counterpart, Helen Morton.
Both have painful and recent memories on sniffing deaths.
A boy from Balgo was taken to Alice Springs for rehabilitation. When he returned home he relapsed and sniffed himself to death in the Halls Creek rubbish dump.
Police were powerless: there is no law under which they can act in WA.
The same applies in SA where the hanging suicide of a sniffer was the traumatic subject of a recent coronial enquiry.
Both Ministers have asked CAYLUS for help – and it is well equipped to provide it.
Saving young people may soon be added to the better known export products of Central Australia, tourism and cattle.
Mr McFarland’s team campaigned for the introduction of Opal fuel and assisted the NT Government develop the Volatile Substance Abuse Prevention Act. It:-
• Gives the community the power to stop sniffing without criminalising people with substance abuse problems.
• Gives police powers to stop people sniffing and take the fuel away from them;
• Allows for referrals of habitual sniffers to the Health Department;
• Empowers a Magistrate to commit sniffers to 16 weeks of compulsory rehabilitation.
Making legislation that can stop people sniffing is now what the neighbouring states are looking at as well – and the success in The Centre is a major incentive.
A report in 2008 by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing into the impact of Opal found that Central Australia and the APY Lands, across the SA border and within CAYLUS’ scope of operations, are the regions with the largest decreases in prevalence of sniffing, with 94% and 93% decreases respectively.
The report also found “a statistically significant relationship between the distance from each community to the nearest ULP (unleaded petrol) outlet”.
Mr McFarland says the situation has improved even further since 2008 and petrol sniffing in The Centre is now virtually extinct.
“There are still outbreaks but we have developed the tools to deal with them. The next challenge is addressing the underlying causes of sniffing.”
Pictured at top: Central Australian Youth Link Up Service bush trip. Blair McFarland with hat.


  1. Caylus must be applauded for its input into the roll-out of Opal fuel and trying to get youth workers into remote communities. I also recognise the earlier input of John Gaynor, Alison Anderson, BP Executive and others.
    However its complicit support along with elements of NTG for geographical isolation (out of sight out of mind) of young people with volatile substance problems in places that were known to have significant care issues and no treatment options or real support structures, shows a lack of concern for the welfare of VSA affected children that is at odds with the hype.

  2. Whilst this may be a success I know that the stats for town base and close communities petrol sniffing has had an increase over the last couple of years. When people have nothing to do and have lost hope in a future that is when they turn to substance abuse. When kids are neglected at the rate they are here in Alice Springs, adults spend all their money on grog and gunja. The only thing affordable is petrol or stolen grog. I love it when govt funded organisations say “we have developed tools to deal with outbreaks”. Please explain what tools you have developed or is this like the spin we are used to. If it is propaganda … and a way to ensure future funding, it would be at the cost of lives lost on the street. Then join the majority of Alice Springs people and demand a youth curfew and then let’s get some real stats and do some real work to help these kids into a future. Putting a towel on a volcano might stop the smoke but it will not stop the eruption.

  3. CAYLUS does acknowledge many other people were crucial in relation to the Opal roll out, including people from remote communities who went to Canberra and advocated with Parliament and the Senate for their families.
    It includes people from all sides of politics who came together about this issue, and who are still on side about it. It includes agencies that we worked alongside through the hard years, when there were 500 sniffers going hard every day across the region, like Bush Mob, Waltja, remote community councils, police, health – everyone had a part in the remarkable success in relation to petrol sniffing in this region.
    We are certainly winning. It’s worth celebrating, as we have made life safer for kids in the region.
    CAYLUS, and all the other players, do care about the kids. The the strategies we have developed in this region can be exported to other regions where they can save lives.
    The stats do not support the assertion that there is increased sniffing in remote communities or in Alice. The report quoted shows that. Anyone who has been around for a while knows that. The sniffing goes on sporadically, in part because of the issues that Janet talks about, and the next phase of the project is to bring resources to bear on the underlying issues that cause substance abuse.
    The tools we have that did not exist a decade ago are in part outlined in the newspaper story – Opal, the VSAP Act, prior to which there was no capacity to intervene in sniffing.
    The police had no power to stop adults sniffing. This is still the case in WA, SA and QLD, where a colleague was telling me last week that he was watching a gang of sniffers on the steps of a rehab facility in Mt Isa sniff but could do nothing about it.
    There is now a section of the Health Department with permanent staff who have legislative powers to assess people who are sniffing and start a process that can mandate them into treatment – also outlined in the story.
    These are the “well developed tools” and they work. There is scope for improvement, which the NTG has done to some degree already, with a review and restructure of the VSAP Act done a couple of years ago to streamline it, and a recent one which is still in the pipeline.
    The tools exist, we (the people in the sector involved) all helped develop them, and we use them every day to keep a lid on sniffing. Lives are saved. Suffering reduced. Health improved. The battle is not over, but we are winning.

  4. Good on you Blair and all those other people and agencies involved for your continued persistence over the years to remedy this sad saga. As seen from some of the comments, you will always have your knockers. Don’t lose sight of the goal and keep going.

  5. Wake up and smell the Roses Blair. The VSA legislation is absolutely useless. There is no back end to it and no mandatory treatment centers.
    Yes, you can get the court to mandate treatment but where do you put these people? If the petrol sniffer wants to walk away from treatment then they can and the whole process of track and remove the sniffer from the community starts all over again.
    The public also needs to know that no amount of orders from the courts will change people’s behavior. Case in point, the Inebriates Act was repealed across Australia in the 70s as it is a well recognised fact world wide that mandated treatment for AOD dependent individuals does not work.

  6. Hi Annon
    I guess Ken is right. There will always be knockers. I’ve seen the positive effect of the VSAP legislation. The roses smell good.

  7. Another good news story, thanks Erwin. We need to hear more of this sort of thing, there are plenty knockers willing to talk up bad news.

  8. Ian your use of the term “Knockers”. You yourself wear that brand name every time someone opposes your view or a view you support. You need a lesson in free speech. No one is knocking the program. We are questioning the real outcomes. Most sensible people will. Unlike you Ian I do not follow blindly to other peoples propaganda. And there are questions. Just questions relevant to Alice Springs and surrounding areas. How much money has been spent? How many actual man hours? How many participated in the program. What levels of brain damage caused by petrol sniffing. None, mild and severe. How many participated in the program and how many completed the program and have been rebuilding their lives without the need for sniffing petrol for a period longer than six months. What are the actual figures for petrol sniffers in the Alice and communities. Knowing the level of incompetence of the NT Government I would assume that for each person completing the program the Government spend would exceed $200,000. How much money since this program began has been spent to date. I know tax payers are not happy with their good money being wasted on programs that do not work. And we do not like it when we are deceived by lies.


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