EDITORIAL: Tale of two cities at night

FACED with unacceptable levels of alcohol-related violence in the Newcastle CBD, the state government introduced a series of tough licensing restrictions in 2008 that have been widely credited for cleaning up the city streets.

In the Victorian city of Geelong, civic leaders were facing similar problems, and more than a dozen interventions have been put in place over the past 20years.

Now, teams of health researchers from the two cities have collaborated in analysing the differing approaches, and come out backing the Newcastle initiative as the more effective.

Importantly, their study also draws on more than 4000 interviews with patrons from both cities to paint the most comprehensive picture they possibly can of trends in drinking habits.

Newcastle publicans have long tried to deflect some of the blame for night-time violence onto the ‘‘pre-loading’’ habits of some of their customers, who they say fill up on cheap booze from non-hotel liquor outlets before arriving at their venues.

The study confirmed this, finding that two-thirds of patrons drank before going out, with one in five consuming between six and 10 standard drinks before hitting town. The researchers say that pre-loading and ‘‘side-drinking’’ from hip-flasks and the like inside venues are major predictors of intoxication and violence.

To reduce the impact of such behaviour, the study suggests a levy on alcohol sold by packaged liquor outlets as a way of recovering the costs associated with alcohol, with the money to be allocated to police, hospitals and councils.

The researchers say the cheap drinks bought from booze barns are a major contributor to the damage caused by alcohol, without the dispensers of the products making a direct contribution to harm-reduction strategies. They compare their proposed levy to the ‘‘polluter pays’’ principle at the heart of modern environmental laws.

This study and others like it are part of a growing body of public health research that paints even moderate consumption of alcohol in a very negative light.

But for the time being, at least, alcohol remains a legally available product, and hoteliers like Russell Richardson are right when they say the researchers are dealing with a very complex issue.

That said, the days and nights when a blind eye could be turned to a bit of pub biffo are well and truly over. Patrons can either learn to drink responsibly and moderately, or find their nights on the town becoming even shorter, more closely watched and more expensive.   

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