Close the doors early on teenage binge drinking
IN recent weeks, Sydney mayor Clover Moore has publicly taken on Kristina Keneally’s NSW Labor government and the liquor industry calling for some restrictions on trading hours to clamp down on alcohol-fuelled violence.
As Moore rightly argues, a liquor licence should be regarded as a privilege, not a right. That’s why she is attempting to wind back the opening hours of badly run premises where patrons are not safe, under-age drinking is rife, and violence and anti-social behaviour spills on to the streets.
In a nation where over-indulgence often seems acceptable and drunkenness is a rite of passage, this has caused a furore. Moore, who is also the feisty independent member for Sydney in the NSW Legislative Assembly, has experienced a vicious and protracted campaign against her plans to place restrictions on the sale of alcohol in the small hours in greater Sydney, a metropolis blighted by alcohol-induced violence and social problems.
Some think Moore’s idea is just plain wowserism but the mayor has reputable research on her side. For example, it is indisputable that longer hours of the sale of alcohol result in more assaults and injury. There is incontrovertible evidence that for each hour clubs and pubs stay open after midnight, the number of assaults increases exponentially.
In a nutshell, restrictions on the opening hours of licensed premises produce a corresponding decrease in injury and crime.
At the moment we have a situation where a significant number of teenagers, and in particular young girls, are presenting at the emergency rooms of Sydney hospitals having been the subject of alcohol-related serious injury and sexual assault.
Misuse of alcohol can cause irreparable damage to the developing adolescent brain and teenagers and young adults need to be protected as much as possible from the injuries and harms associated with drinking alcohol. A restriction on the sale of alcohol is but one weapon in this fight.
It is not only experts on alcohol and other drugs in NSW who are concerned about over-long and 24-hour liquor outlets in places such as Sydney and Newcastle. The National Local Government Drug and Alcohol Advisory Committee and the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia have similar deep concerns.
But when dealing with the powerful Australian liquor industry we need to be extremely watchful and to present to the media and the general public the facts, for example, about the negative ramifications of longer opening hours.
Ian Webster, director of the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation, is on Moore’s side. “The international evidence and evidence from studies in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Newcastle is that extended hours of alcohol availability and the density of alcohol outlets leads to higher rates of harm to local communities, drinkers and strangers,” Webster says.
A recent study commissioned by the AERF found the cost of alcohol’s harm to others totalled more than $20 billion annually. Deeply concerned about the increasing levels of alcohol-fuelled violence with which their frontline members have to deal, representatives of police services and of Australia’s medical and nurses associations have formed the Last Drinks Campaign.
Rather than cleaning up the mess afterwards, they want tougher licensing restrictions to prevent large-scale, alcohol-related violence from happening at all.
We’re talking about a global pandemic of alcohol abuse here. The fact is that alcohol is the drug that causes the most harm and damage in Western societies, increasingly afflicting younger drinkers.
A particularly disturbing trend is an increase, among Australians aged 16 to 24, in out-of-control drinking, and especially of binge-drinking in teenage girls.
This problem is accentuated if, as so often happens, teenagers use other drugs including ecstasy, ice, cocaine and, especially, marijuana, which is cultivated hydroponically now and is much more potent than “the herb” of 20 or 30 years ago.
Despite all the advances in medicine and in the so-called “helping professions”, few Australians understand that a significant number of teenagers who drink alcohol end up physically and psychologically damaged.
Yet in our society there is still enormous social and peer-group pressure on those who wish to avoid alcohol. This pressure is extremely strong on the young.
Alcoholism and drug addiction among the young is much more prevalent than most people in Australia realise.
Yet regretfully, these days cutting down or giving up is seen as too great a sacrifice to make and the idea of life-long abstinence as a therapeutic aim is regarded by many with horror.
Thankfully groups like the Salvation Army in treating alcoholics and other addicts still aim for complete abstinence rather than so-called “controlled” drinking or drug use, favoured by some misguided professionals.
In many centres across Australia, the Salvos’ Bridge Program makes pivotal use of Alcoholics Anonymous, its meetings and its highly effective 12-Step Program of recovery.
Although, superficially, it may seem a useful strategy to suggest alcoholics and addicts should try to learn to control their usage, such an approach is an enormous waste of human and financial resources that causes, if not death, then often irreparable damage.
The truth is that an alcoholic’s or an addict’s best chance of recovery lies in practising total abstinence, which for most sufferers is the bedrock of a recovery which, in time, can lead to a useful and meaningful life.
Some might argue that everyone should be free to make their own choices about alcohol. Fine, but we need to protect young people as they develop into adults able to make such choices.
We need to put their well-being ahead of the profits of a billion-dollar industry and delay the use of alcohol by young people for as long as possible. Moore’s campaign is one way to do that and research and expert opinion support her. So should we.
Ross Fitzgerald is author of My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey and a member of the NSW government’s Expert Advisory Group on Drugs and Alcohol.
November 20, 2010