NSW has a problem with alcohol. Drinking is so entrenched in our culture that we tend to shrug our shoulders, even when confronted with the truth about the harm caused.
The range of alcohol-related harm is colossal: death, injury, disease, violence, lost productivity, suicide, child neglect – endless suffering, but not mission impossible.
And we look to Newcastle to remind the state of what can be done to actually stop the harm.
In 2014, Sydney was a city in crisis, with blood on the streets, literally. Measures focussed on addressing the escalating alcohol-fuelled violence in Kings Cross and Sydney’s CBD were urgently required.
The NSW government’s powerful and historic intervention, modelled on Newcastle’s 2008 earlier closing times, had an immediate, dramatic and sustained impact.
Night-time assaults in Kings Cross have been halved, alcohol-related emergency department presentations have been reduced and instances of traumatic head injury have almost entirely stopped.
The measures introduced by the O’Farrell government were not a knee-jerk reaction, but rather a long-overdue course correction. Not a shot in the dark, but a proven solution; tried, tested and continuing to save lives in Newcastle.
And far from extreme, the measures were modest. Their successful implementation is proof that it is possible to prioritise public health and safety, and also foster a vibrant and prosperous nightlife; one not dependent on the dangerous over supply of alcohol and the systematic failure of responsible service of alcohol laws.
The examples of Sydney and Newcastle are ‘proof positive’ that it is possible to get the balance right.
But now, four years on, and in the lead up to the 2019 NSW election, it’s time to recognise the full breadth and extent of alcohol harm across the entire state of NSW.
No more apathy, please.
Every day in NSW, alcohol is responsible for more than 40 emergency department presentations, 137 hospitalisations and four deaths. Alcoholic products cause a significant proportion of preventable chronic disease in NSW, including 18.4 per cent of cancer deaths in men and 11.2 per cent in women.
Alcohol is also a significant contributor to horrific instances of family and domestic violence and child neglect. Of the 28 intimate partner homicides in NSW in one year, 18 per cent were alcohol-related.
The Auditor-General says responding to these problems costs the NSW taxpayer more than a $1 billion a year.
In addition to some of these health and social costs, the cost to NSW businesses from reduced productivity has been estimated by economists to be in excess of $1 billion annually.
The totality of this harm can be reduced with sensible evidence-based policy interventions that continue to prioritise public health and safety; which tilts the balance in favour of the people of NSW and not the alcohol industry.
It is apparent there remain forces bent on rolling back the life-saving measures introduced by then-premier O’Farrell in 2014.
In the past four years there has been a slow, but constant undermining and weakening of NSW’s system of alcohol regulation.
The regulation has become permissive and biased toward the alcohol industry, and against public health and safety.
Even with the success of the Kings Cross measures the magnitude of harm is still 7.6 times greater than across Sydney overall.
There are other consequences. NSW’s regional areas continue to experience disproportionate levels of alcohol harm.
Alcohol-related domestic assaults are up to 12.1 times higher in rural and remote regions than in NSW as a whole.
In outer regional and remote areas of NSW 23 per cent of drinkers exceed lifetime alcohol risk guidelines, compared with 16 per cent in major cities.
Alcohol is a factor in 85 per cent of motor vehicle fatalities in rural NSW and only 17 per cent in major cities.
The regulation of alcohol needs to be put back on track and efforts to reduce the unacceptable burden of alcohol-related harm significantly boosted.
The next NSW government can ill-afford to forget the lessons of the past and the memories of the alcohol-fuelled violence, which blighted Sydney before 2014.
We must not dishonour the lives of young Thomas Kelly and Daniel Christie, whose deaths triggered the community demand for action on alcohol.
The political leaders who were willing to listen to scientific reason ahead of industry rhetoric and to prioritise public health and safety in Sydney above alcohol industry profits in 2014, must display the same willingness to act now and reduce the burden of alcohol harm across the entire state today.