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From violence to vibrant: the Newcastle story

Earlier this week I convened Newcastle Community Drug Action Team’s (CDAT) Annual Community conference titled AOD at the Crossroads.

A key focus of the first day was an update of the ongoing success of the modest reduction in late trading hours in Newcastle and the resulting profound international policy implications.

Prior to March 2008, Newcastle NSW, the sixth  largest city in Australia, had the highest rate of alcohol-fueled violence in the state. It also had the highest rate of drink driving charges and one of the highest rates of assaults on emergency workers.

Newcastle’s CBD was attracting around 20,000 preloaded younger drinkers every weekend from up to 100 kilometres away.

Our so called “vibrant” night economy could have better been described as a “bloodbath”.

In March 2008, the former independent Liquor Administration Board’s landmark decision imposed a mandatory, precinct-wide 3am closure, a 1 am lockout and a package of other preventative measures regarding the supply of alcohol against all 14 late trading licensed premises, the majority of whom were trading to 5am.

The modest reduction in late trading hours has since been the subject of unprecedented independent scientific scrutiny and peer review. The latest findings were reported to the conference this week by Professor Wiggers from the University of Newcastle School of Medicine and Public Health and Professor Miller from Deakin University.

The identified benefits of the reduction in late trading hours are convincing and compelling.

They include:

  • an internationally unprecedented 33% fall in alcohol-related non domestic assaults;
  • Alcohol-related non domestic assaults are now at a 14 year low;
  • a 50% reduction in night time street crime;
  • a 26% reduction in related hospital ED admissions;
  • 82% community support for the reduction in late trading hours;
  • 75% younger patron support for the reduction in late trading hours;
  • a very important reduction in preloading – the primary predictor of alcohol related assaults;
  • a reduction in the average levels of binge drinking;
  • overall reductions in assaults much better than that achieved in Sydney, Wollongong and Geelong who do have CCTV systems but no reduced trading hours;
  • an increase in the total number of licensed premises in the Newcastle CBD and an increase in sustainable business diversity away from the late trading binge barns leading to an improved night economy;
  • the vast majority of 2008 Newcastle late trading venues remaining open; and
  • unquantified but significant reductions in public health, policing and related costs in Newcastle compared with the large costs associated with CCTV surveillance systems (not in Newcastle) and other reactive measures in other cities that have not matched the outstanding successful harm prevention measures in Newcastle.

Professor Miller also found that for some cities in Victoria, reliance on a lockouts and curfews alone, without a reduction in late closing times actually increased the level of alcohol-fueled assaults.

The local Police Commander Supt John Gralton also provided his endorsement of the disproportionate positive effect of the small reduction in late trading.

It is important to put this small reduction in late trading hours in its proper perspective.

It must be remembered that in NSW, fewer than four per cent of licensed premises trade after midnight. The same late trading premises and their near vicinity account for about 80 per cent of the non-domestic alcohol related violence.

These researchers have unequivocally, systematically and methodically refuted the alcohol industry’s scare campaign that the “draconian” conditions had “devastated” Newcastle.

They proved that the modest reduction in late trading hours to 3am in Newcastle had not only reduced alcohol-related harms, it created a safer and more diverse night-time economy, with net economic benefits.

The Newcastle CDAT conference was attended by a broad range of community members and police across Regional NSW, as well as some local liquor industry members.

The research also supported the effectiveness of reducing late trading hours in places like Byron Bay, Tamworth, Armidale and Orange, which currently have 3am closing times for a small number of licensed pubs and clubs.

Many community participants from across NSW at the Newcastle CDAT conference could not comprehend why their communities with similar alcohol-related street problems continue to be deprived of the general Newcastle public safety alcohol harm prevention measures and associated substantial cost savings.

Newcastle residents and Police over the last five years have noted a welcomed and long awaited improvement in the safety of their streets, other public spaces and licensed venues.

In NSW over 70 per cent of police time is spent dealing with alcohol-related incidents.

The NSW Auditor General recently identified the total public cost of the ongoing dangerous oversupply, promotion and availability of alcohol in NSW is $1 billion dollars a year. The total social cost to NSW taxpayers is around $4 billion each year.

Imagine, if that money could be used to substantially reduce hospital waiting times, build better hospitals, health resources and schools, improve public transport, and divert scarce police resources to proactive and community issues.

NSW taxpayers can no longer afford the current “band aid” approach of responding to the very costly consequences of alcohol oversupply and misuse – when what is needed is to address the cause of the problem and acknowledge the overwhelming available independent evidence.

Sensible reductions in late trading hours should be the very first cost and life saving measure adopted by any responsible government. Such measures will dramatically and sustainably cut non-domestic alcohol-related harms to create safer communities.

The evidence is in – there are no more legitimate excuses not to act.

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a PhD (Law) Scholar, Conjoint Fellow School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle. He is the Chairperson of the Newcastle and Hunter Region Multicultural Drug Action Teams. He voluntarily led and represented around 150 local residents, small businesses and concerned citizens in the complex legal proceedings initiated by the Police that led to the “Newcastle conditions”.


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