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Don’t wait for the next tragedy: the ACT must act now on alcohol

Sickening footage emerged last week of yet another coward’s punch assault in an entertainment district; this time in the aftermath of Canberra’s booze-filled New Year’s Eve celebrations.

A group of young men can be seen talking outside the Civic convenience store in the early hours of the morning, when one lands a sharp, sideways punch to the jaw of the unsuspecting victim.

This unfortunate local started his 2016 with emergency surgery, constant pain and a week in hospital while recovering from a senseless assault.

Unsurprisingly, the footage received a strong reaction on social media and has prompted an outcry among concerned Canberrans.

There is clear consensus: we can, and should, be doing much more to prevent this alcohol-fuelled violence. The current system is clearly not adequately mitigating the harms from alcohol.

In response to the disturbing attack, Attorney-General Simon Corbell said the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government would consider further reforms to its liquor laws.

In fact, the government has already been considering such reform for many years now as part of its review of the 2010 Liquor Act.

Since it commenced in September 2013, there have been multiple phases to the review, at least five rounds of community and stakeholder consultation, numerous issues, discussion and policy papers, and a wealth of submissions with consistent recommendations for addressing alcohol’s heavy toll.

While taking a considered approach to change is admirable, when this turns to prevarication it becomes problematic. Over this period of deliberation, while the government continues to consult, alcohol harms have become steadily worse.

Canberrans drink more and at riskier levels on a single occasion than the national average. About 22 per cent of ACT residents drink at a level that puts them at risk of long-term harm, compared with only 18.2 per cent nationally. And while the rest of Australia is reducing its daily drinking, the ACT has seen an increase, with 6.6 per cent now consuming alcohol on a daily basis.

Those drinking patterns are reflected in the significant and escalating alcohol harms occurring all too often in Canberra.

Alcohol is responsible for more than 6700 hospital emergency department presentations in the ACT every year. That’s 18 people a day.

The ACT also averages about 95 drink and drug-driving offences, and a further 85 alcohol-related offences are reported to police each month.

This alarming consumption and harm data makes it abundantly clear there is still much work to do to make the nation’s capital a safer place.

When faced with similar issues, the New South Wales and Queensland governments have shown bold determination and leadership on alcohol policy reform.

It is unacceptable that, after nearly three years, the ACT government has still not completed its review of the Liquor Act and has allowed the ACT Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Strategy to expire.

Effective liquor legislation should prioritise public health and safety above all else. And the community urgently wants to see this happen, with polling showing two-thirds of ACT residents support reducing the number of outlets that sell alcohol and 61.7 per cent in favour of reducing late night trading at on-licence premises.

If the government genuinely wants to prevent alcohol harms, its priority must be to crack down on reckless discounting and promotion, and reduce late-night trading hours by introducing a 3am close and 1am one-way-door for licensed venues along with a 10pm close for bottle shops.

No more tinkering around the edges with minor amendments or talking about what could or should be done. Frustratingly, the solutions have been right in front of our noses all along.

All that remains is for our elected representatives to stand up to the alcohol lobby and stop stalling the already drawn-out process; and instead start listening to the community and implementing much-needed alcohol policy changes based on the best evidence available.

Let’s not wait for the next tragedy to hit the headlines. It’s well and truly time that the ACT took decisive action to prevent alcohol-fuelled violence.

This post was first published in The Canberra Times.

Related content: Government told to show leadership after one-punch attack.

Michael Thorn

Michael Thorn

Michael is the Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), and tweets from @MichaelTThorn.

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