Australians have a major problem with alcohol. This is not a new idea, or a novel research finding, but something we’ve surprisingly come to accept as a culture.
Alcohol-related harms come at considerable cost to the community. Both in terms of the physical, psychological and emotional harms of violence and injury, but also in terms of the substantial economic cost and burden on emergency services.
And, much of this cost is entirely preventable.
A new report released by our team (Drug and Alcohol intoxication and Subsequent Harm in night-time Entertainment Districts) shows that alcohol-related harm is a major burden in both Canberra and Hobart.
Almost half those interviewed reported being involved in some kind of aggression around licensed venues in the last three months. Interviewees in both locations reported high levels of physical aggression (17 per cent in Canberra and 16 per cent in Hobart), which was at least as high as that seen in previous studies in comparable Australian cities.
Additionally, 18 per cent of those surveyed in Hobart and 17 per cent of those in Canberra reported an alcohol-related injury, which was among the highest of all sites where this data has been collected. We seldom hear much about injuries from falling over drunk, but it is just as great a problem arising from drunken nights out.
Unwanted sexual attention was also very high in or around licensed venues in both Canberra (28 per cent) and Hobart (26 per cent), reporting an average of four incidents in the three months prior to interview. These high levels of sexual harassment are deeply worrying and completely out of step with current efforts to curb sexual assault and intimate partner violence.
We also found that a large proportion of people were pre-drinking before they attended licensed venues, which led to an increase in their exposure to harm. Particularly in Hobart, pre-drinking was correlated with an increase in reports of verbal aggression and injury in and around nightclubs, pubs, and bars.
We know that pre-drinking is a major impediment to the responsible service of alcohol, and that it is one of the key drivers of alcohol-related harm alongside high concentration of venues, high alcohol consumption levels, and late trading hours.
When analysed as a whole, these harms cost the Canberra community nearly $12 million a year. While not all harms attributable to the entertainment precinct could be costed, these conservative estimates represent a huge cost to the community. Especially when you consider that it is only a tiny proportion of people going out on any given Friday or Saturday night, around one to three per cent.
The good news is we have a range of modest and effective measures that can reduce the burden on our emergency services, the community purse, and the victims of alcohol-related aggression.
Calling ‘last drinks’ at 2am, and introducing a minimum price per standard drink around the price of a VB stubby will substantially reduce this harm.
Other measures, such as placing bans on problem patrons entering entertainment districts, with mandatory ID scanner provisions to ensure these bans are enforced, can reduce problematic behaviour.
Additionally, introducing increased penalties for venues with a high number of assaults, such as trading hour restrictions or temporary closure, and a national review of security standards and training in licensed venues could have a substantial impact on the rates of violence in our nightlife.
This new evidence calls for a re-think in the way the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmanian governments respond to the huge drain on our communities of late night drinking.
It is encumbent on politicians to seriously reconsider their policies in the best interests of the whole community, not just a vocal minority sponsored by the alcohol industry.