Drink Tank

Are breath tests the answer to RSA issues?

Standing behind the bar, the beers, spirits and wines are flowing. It is a busy night and most of the workers feel under the pump. But no time to think, the line in front of the bar is deep, very deep.

A patron stumbles up and slurs his words as he orders a round of drinks. A staff member thinks, “there is no way I can serve this customer more alcohol”. Before he can tell the customer he’s cut off, another staff member serves him.

It’s a scene that is repeated many times over in our bars and clubs across Australia every single night. The problem is one staff member’s definition of ‘intoxicated’ is often not the same as another’s.

This issue has real consequences to both the patron, who may be physically hurt, and the bar staff who in some states of Australia can be fined up to $8,000 if found to be in breach of Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) laws.

Dr Robert Kaldawi, Clinical Director at the Academy of Health Education in Victoria has proposed a radical solution. He has over 25 years’ experience in the field, a PhD in Biochemistry and is a policy advisor at knowyourlimit.com.au. He also was involved in the development of the Alcohol Interlock Ignition Device that immobilises a vehicle upon detection of blood alcohol in the breath.

Dr Kaldawi is frustrated by what he sees as Australia’s inability to make serious laws aimed at preventing drunkenness, citing the RSA laws and “their confusing definition of intoxication”. The Liquor Control Reform Act 1998 of Victoria states that:

For the purposes of this Act, a person is in a state of intoxication if his or her speech, balance, co-ordination or behaviour is noticeably affected and there are reasonable grounds for believing that this is the result of the consumption of liquor.”

Dr Kaldawi says that we need an objective way of measuring intoxication levels.

“By the time someone has started to slur, lose balance and has a noticeable change in behaviour the person is already heavily intoxicated” Dr Kaldawi said.

He proposes that all licenced establishments should be equipped with and enforce the use of breathalysers.

At first glance this might seem like a drastic measure, but from my own four year experience working behind a bar, perhaps it’s worth exploring further.

Firstly, bar staff would no longer have to make a judgement call to cut someone off, which can and does vary between staff members. In turn, an upset patron would be less likely to direct their anger or frustration towards bar staff, who would no longer be ‘making the call’, rather they would simply be governed by the breathalyser’s results.

In-venue breathalysers would also benefit drinking patrons. Because patrons are unable to consume the same amount of alcohol due to the breathalysers, they would be decreasing their chances of developing any alcohol-related diseases.

In Dr Kaldawi’s ideal world, any person with blood alcohol content (BAC) over 0.15% would not be served a drink.

“A BAC reading of 0.15% is an early warning sign of tolerance and an alcohol problem, regardless of size, gender, age or race. For these reasons, I believe that 0.15% BAC is the perfect alcohol limit whilst in a licenced premises”, Dr Kaldawi said.

So how would this work in practice?

Robert is clear about not breathalysing every patron, only the ones that are causing trouble or starting to show early signs of intoxication. The costs of implementing this would be covered by establishments, and these laws would be enforced by police and licensing authorities.

“In-venue breathalysers have the capacity to make the night safer for the drunken patron, other patrons in the venue, all the staff and even police. The current RSA laws are out-dated and need to be changed if we are serious about saving lives”, Dr Kaldawi said.

Although this proposal may ruffle some feathers, is it really such a radical idea?

In the 1970’s and 80’s (1976 Victoria, 1982 NSW) the introduction of Random Breath Testing (RBT) was met with suspicion, moral outrage and concern. Today, 30 years on, it is accepted, enforced and acknowledged for its significant contribution to reducing Australia’s road toll.

Maybe the call for in-venue breathalysers is just what the doctor ordered.

Photograph by Ben Dalton

Lee Efrossynis

Lee Efrossynis

Lee is a third year Public Relations student at the University of Canberra.


  • Lee, Dr Kaldawi is obviously very frustrated by the ineffectiveness of RSA laws – and why wouldn’t he be. It seems RSA is honoured in the breach. This is a difficult issue particularly as the problem gets transfer from a private space(the bar) to a public space (the street). His solution goes to an old truth that prevention is better than a cure.

  • The problem is that even those who are not causing trouble or showing signs of being drunk may still be significantly affected by alcohol or even have a very high BAC and walk out of the premises, and get into a car or onto a motor bike and kill or severely injure themselves or other people.

    The concept of a place where alcohol is consumed, that is not a person’s home, is inherently dangerous, because the person needs to get from the place, to their home, and if they’re affected by alcohol then they may not, at the risk of stating the obvious, exercise appropriate judgement and decline to get a taxi or a lift with someone else, thereby exposing both themselves and others to terrible danger.

    But of course, a person could consume alcohol at home and then try to drive and kill themselves or others, or just fall over due to the effects of alcohol and hit their head and then die. So the concept of alcohol itself is inherently very dangerous and nothing will ever change that except not consuming or promoting it at all.

  • I completely agree with Dr. Kaldawi. We definitely need a more objective way of deciding when a customer should be stopped from ordering more drinks. A breathalyser does sound like a good idea. But, I wonder how many will actually buy one, unless its mandatory.

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