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To tackle our drinking problem, look to Newcastle – and closer to home too

The NSW city of Newcastle is known for its port, coal, earthquake, surfing, lively arts scene, and for Silverchair, the Newcastle Knights and Joey Johns (did I miss anything?).

But perhaps it should also get some kudos for its efforts to tackle alcohol-related harm, suggests Laurence Alvis, CEO of UnitingCare Moreland Hall.

As well as turning to Newcastle for inspiration, the wider Australian community should be looking close to home if the grog toll is to be reduced, he says.

***

Efforts to reduce alcohol-related harm must be integrated and evidence-based 

Laurence Alvis writes:

More than three-quarters of Australians think the country has a problem with alcohol, according to a recent national poll by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE).   Even more appear to believe that the problem is so entrenched that it there is little to no chance of it improving in the next five to ten years.

The problem is significant, but it is not insurmountable.  We have a wide range of options that can have a direct impact on reducing alcohol related harms experienced in our own lives, our friends’ and families’ and the wider community.

In recent coverage of FARE’s poll findings, the Newcastle Herald ran a story that led with endorsement by FARE Chief Executive Michael Thorn for that city’s approach to reducing alcohol related violence. Key components of this approach are lockouts and 3am closures for pubs and nightclubs.

There is a growing body of local and international research evidence supporting the effectiveness of reducing late-night access to alcohol as a way of reducing violence .

However, it is also clear that a broader approach is needed, one that addresses alcohol related violence not just in entertainment precincts, but also in family homes and suburban, regional and rural communities.  When drinking to get drunk is the accepted pattern of alcohol consumption for many Australians (36% according to the FARE poll), we must address alcohol related violence at a cultural, as well as an individual and family level.  Without a significant shift in our drinking culture, we will never be able to target the root of the problem.

There have been demonstrated benefits of the Newcastle model.  A 2010 study found that earlier closing times had contributed to a 37% reduction in assaults and challenged the popular belief that lockouts simply displace violence elsewhere.

Studies such as this one show that violence is not inevitable in environments where drinking occurs.  There are many things that can be done to reduce its occurrence and the level of community trauma it causes.

In it’s recent Position Paper: Preventing alcohol related violence, the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association (VAADA) effectively summarised the range of available options as:

  • Reducing availability (both through licenced premises and bottle shops);
  • Targetting higher risk licenced venues, particularly through the conditions under which they are able to trade;
  • Alcohol tax reform, including the introduction of a floor price for alcohol and tax being tied to alcohol content, rather than the type of beverage;
  • Local solutions and responses, involving collaborative responses by communities, business and governments;
  • Access and provision of evidence-informed treatment, including a greater role for GPs in the identification and treatment of alcohol related harms;
  • Advertising reform, imposing greater restrictions on how alcohol producers can advertise their product, particularly to young people;
  • Responding to alcohol related family violence, by increasing the capacity of a range of service providers to identify and support people experiencing (or at risk of) domestic violence and child abuse;
  • Changing public attitudes towards alcohol, by promoting healthy approaches to alcohol consumption and empowering people to reduce the occurrence and impacts of alcohol related harms.

As Victoria’s experience with the Brumby Government’s ill-fated 2008 experiment with lockouts in Melbourne shows, policy initiatives that focus on a single issue in isolation and are not grounded in community consultation will only produce, at best, mixed results.

The challenge for those concerned about alcohol related violence (and, according to the FARE poll, that is most of us) is to develop an integrated response to the problem.  This response must be based on what works, not what is expedient or politically palatable.

It must also focus on promoting positive messages and empowering people to make informed decisions about their alcohol consumption.

All too often, advocates for alcohol reform are dismissed as wowsers or nanny state enthusiasts.  Ultimately, this reduces the impact of Government policy and public health messages as people react to a perceived creeping prohibition of what is, for many, a legal and enjoyable activity.

We need to improve the quality of public debate of issues relating to alcohol (and other drugs).  If we are to achieve a shift in our drinking culture, we also need to start considering our individual behaviour.  Too many of us easily shift discussion to other people’s drinking, rather than examining the harms associated with our own drinking.

One of the most disturbing findings from the FARE poll was that, while over three quarters of Australians identified a problem in our drinking culture, nearly the same proportion considered that there was no need to change their own patterns of consumption.

There is a disconnect here between our behavior and our perception of who is responsible for our problems with alcohol.

If we are really to change our culture, we need to start with ourselves.  If we are to really change our national policy response, the example set by Newcastle provides a good starting point.

• UnitingCare Moreland Hall is the lead Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) treatment and education agency of UnitingCare Victoria & Tasmania. Moreland Hall has been operating since 1970 and provides a range of treatment and education services, including withdrawal and rehabilitation programs, counselling and support in the community and at Victorian prisons, professional development, drug diversion programs, supported accommodation and youth and family programs.

 

 

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Australian Palliative Care Conference
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