Another New Year behind us and alcohol-fuelled violence in many of our night-time entertainment areas continues to feature in the news headlines.
There are, of course, a number of complex factors which contribute to this violence – including the significant and well-documented role alcohol often plays.
Policymakers wishing to reduce alcohol-fuelled violence have ample evidence to guide their decisions. The World Health Organization (WHO) has long recommended policy measures that target alcohol’s availability, marketing and pricing.
Despite this extensive scientific evidence, one of Australasia’s largest alcohol producers Lion Pty Ltd commissioned a report from British anthropologist Dr Anne Fox on the causes of violence in night-time entertainment areas.
And, unsurprisingly, Dr Fox’s 2015 report claimed that alcohol consumption was not a cause of violence. She contends that Australian and New Zealand cultural beliefs regarding acceptable behaviour when drinking were instead to blame.
According to Fox, regulatory approaches such as those endorsed by WHO “tinker at the margins of culture and it is doubtful that they will alter the culture of violence and anti-social behaviour in any meaningful way” (Fox, 2015, p. 95).
She instead recommended an increased focus on the individual and community through public education about acceptable drinking behaviours, social marketing media campaigns and parental advice for children.
If only things were that simple.
At the time of its release, public health experts and organisations, including the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), expressed concerns about the integrity of research commissioned by vested interests.
Researchers Professor Kypros Kypri from the University of Newcastle and Nicki Jackson from the University of Auckland in New Zealand were also appalled at the report’s recommendations and have published a critique in the latest issue of the international peer-reviewed journal Addiction.
The analysis demonstrates why the key claims of the report commissioned by Lion are unsound and fail to recognise important evidence that runs counter to Dr Fox’s conclusions.
“The report is highly selective in the research used to support its recommendations. It fails to acknowledge the huge body of evidence concerning effective strategies for reducing violence, such as earlier cessation of sales in licensed premises. Dr Fox has overstated the effectiveness of social marketing and alcohol education, and underplayed the causal role of alcohol in violence,” says Ms Jackson.
The paper cautions that Dr Fox’s recommendations to direct attention away from alcohol, and place responsibility for anti-social behaviours on the cultural determinants of violence, deserve careful critique.
“Despite failing to meet even basic standards of research the report cannot be ignored, because the findings are being used by the alcohol industry to overturn licensing decisions and in submissions on public policy,” says Professor Kypri.
“We believe this was simply an effort by the alcohol industry to raise doubts about the existing evidence, which is strong. Employing ‘merchants of doubt’ is a strategy used by the fossil fuel industry to subvert science on global warming. Before that it was the tobacco industry funding research to focus attention on individuals rather than its products. This report should be viewed in the same way, as evidence that the alcohol industry will do whatever it takes to resist sensible regulation,” said Professor Kypri.
FARE Chief Executive Michael Thorn agrees that the scientific evidence on alcohol-related violence far outweighs the arguments made in partisan studies such as Dr Fox’s.
“The recommendations in Dr Fox’s alcohol industry funded report are weak, imprecise, not supported by evidence and, critically, would at best take many generations to see any effect. It runs counter to the substantial body of persuasive global research, which meets the highest of academic standards and illustrates that addressing alcohol’s price, availability and promotion has an immediate impact on reducing alcohol-fuelled violence, anti-social behaviours, and patterns of risky drinking,” says Mr Thorn.
“Policymakers can make a meaningful difference by taking these simple proven steps. Any attempts by vested industry interests to cast doubt over such sensible evidence-based interventions are clearly placing profits before the health of the community,” Mr Thorn said.
In response to the critique, Lion has said it stands by the report and that Dr Fox is a highly respected anthropologist.
Dr Fox was reported as not taking this criticism lying down. She was invited to write a response for the Addiction journal, but twice failed to provide an article which satisfied the publication’s scientific standards.
However, Dr Fox did lash out at Professor Kypri in Australian and New Zealand media this week for failing to declare that he is a member of anti-alcohol organisation the “Independent Order of Rechabites” on the basis that such religious temperance beliefs cloud scientific judgment.
In addition to his position at the University of Newcastle and numerous advisory roles, Professor Kypri holds a voluntary board position with the Australian Rechabite Foundation. The Foundation funds research and advocacy to reduce alcohol harm but, despite Fox’s claims, does not subscribe to a temperance philosophy. Professor Kypri denied there was any undeclared conflict of interest, but was not surprised that the response to criticism had been to attack the individual rather than the research.
The Australian article on this subject (“Academic war of words over alcohol and violence”, 13/01/2016) has been removed from their website and offending tweets removed from Twitter. The paper has since issued a correction clarifying Professor Kypri’s position with the Australian Rechabite Foundation.
The full paper, A critique of Fox’s industry-funded report into the drivers of anti-social behaviour in the night-time economies of Australia and New Zealand, is available online.