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Alcohol abuse a major factor in domestic abuse problem

28 March 2015 One Comment

In Australia, domestic violence is universally recognised as a serious and widespread problem with massive social costs. But we wouldn’t know this from the way most of our politicians have responded to this crucial issue. Surely all our major political parties and their apparatchiks could find a way for an effective, consensus-based approach supported by all Australians?

Domestic violence was firmly back on the agenda with the announcement by Tony Abbott of family violence campaigner, Rosie Batty, as the 2015 Australian of the Year. Abbott also announced the formation of a national domestic violence scheme that would be added to the COAG agenda.

But a real commitment to significantly reducing domestic violence, rather than just keeping on pretending that we wish or want to, requires another bold step. We need to get serious about one of the major causes of domestic violence — alcohol abuse. In fact, the misuse of Australia’s favourite drug of choice is probably the major cause of the incidence and escalation of domestic violence.

The truth is that we know how to reduce alcohol-related problems: increase the price; reduce the availability; and start properly regulating alcohol advertising and promotion.

But the latter should not involve the booze industry regulating itself. In this context, self-regulation is to meaningful regulation as self-importance is to actual importance. This is especially the case because, these days, the alcohol industry is increasingly advertising online, which is so much more difficult to track and regulate.

So far we seem unable to stop the powerful liquor industry and the alcohol lobby preventing effective policies from being implemented. To take on these long- established, powerful players would require considerable political will and personal courage. The reality is that the booze industry is so much more influential and so much more massively funded than are those groups and individuals who support alcohol and other drug reform.

Currently, the liquor industry spends much more money promoting alcohol than is spent on alcohol education campaigns — which especially need to be directed at the young. According to Dr Alex Wodak, who has spent decades working in the field, “the drinks industry is very well heeled and runs advertisements 24/7, but governments are usually strapped and are therefore lucky to be able to run a three-week campaign every few years, warning about alcohol misuse.

We are so far from a level playing field that, currently, alcohol education campaigns don’t stand much of a chance of significantly changing behaviour.

One of the reasons for escalating violence against women is the fact that a lot more men still drink a lot more dangerously than women. Also men who have been physically and sexually abused as children are much more likely to engage in domestic violence than those who haven’t been abused. However rates of alcohol consumption and problem drinking between men and women have been slowly converging for decades. This has occurred as women have become more economically independent and as the liquor industry has increasingly targeted its marketing and advertising at women. Sadly there seem to be no statistics available about domestic violence in Muslim homes. This means that we do not know if, because often no alcohol is consumed, there is less violence in that part of our culture or if it is substantially the same.

Certainly there are factors other than alcohol involved in our massive rates of domestic violence. In particular we need to be aware of the strong relationship between economic disadvantage, social distress and structural inequality on one hand and domestic violence on the other. Unfortunately, as well as ignoring the strong causal connection between alcohol misuse and domestic violence, most politicians and media commentators often also underestimate these important economic and social factors.

One useful suggestion is that, from now on, all proposed economic policies should be accompanied by a detailed social impact assessment. The latter should form an integral part of all federal and state legislation.

The reality is that alcohol and different types of violent crime, including domestic violence, are closely linked, especially when binge patterns of drinking become more common. There is much more alcohol-related violence in the north of Europe, where binge drinking is very common, than in southern Europe, where steady drinking patterns are the norm.

When life is tough, alcohol is commonly used to relieve pressure. And for people living in inadequate housing and struggling to find work, alcohol eases the pain. Hence as inequality continues to increase in Australia, we can expect more violence, including domestic violence. A recent Senate inquiry was presented with unambiguous data demonstrating that, in Australia, inequality has been increasing, as is the case in most other developed countries. As well as the negative effect of excessive inequality on economic growth, this increase has rightly been criticised by alcohol reformers

because of its high social costs. However these days critics range beyond the usual suspects and include conservative organisations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

What is particularly galling is that while we know how to significantly reduce alcohol-related problems, because of the relentless opposition of the powerful drinks industry we currently seem unable to thread much-needed reforms through the current political maze. It’s a David versus Goliath struggle and, unlike tobacco, Goliath is still winning most battles about the booze.

But eventually people woke up to the grave dangers of tobacco. Perhaps they can now be persuaded to think seriously about a health problem that has been endemic in Australia since colonial times. In relation to alcohol misuse and domestic violence we know what to do. Now we just need to find more principled politicians, including those sitting on COAG, to implement the reforms we so desperately need.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books, including his memoir MY NAME IS ROSS: AN ALCOHOLIC’S JOURNEY, which is available as an e-Book and a Talking Book from Vision Australia.

The Weekend Australian, March 28-29, 2015, Commentary p 22.

One Comment »

  • Alex Wodak said:

    As Ross Fitzgerald points out (“Alcohol abuse a major factor in domestic abuse problem” – online, 28/3 March) reducing the huge problem of domestic violence in Australia requires serious attempts to reduce excessive alcohol consumption.

    The drinks industries and its friends in all the major political parties always advocate education as the solution. But we know from the evaluation of educational campaigns that the benefits of education are modest at best.

    Research consistently shows, as Fitzgerald points out, that price increases and more sensible availability are the critical effective policy changes required. The alcohol industry vehemently opposes these measures and has very successfully managed to get politicians from many parties to toe its line.

    In January last year, the NSW government was forced by the weight of public opinion to slightly reduce the availability of alcohol in a small but high profile part of our most populous state. It’s time that the weight of public opinion was used to make these changes standard through the country.

    Australia should also stop pandering the drinks industry by continuing the self regulation of advertising, marketing and promotion.

    Alex Wodak, Alcohol and Drug Service, St Vincent’s Hospital Darlinghurst, NSW

    The Australian, March 30, 2015, p 15

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