06:04am Friday 28 February 2020

Australia, we need to talk about alcohol

Dr Jennifer Pilgrim

Dr Jennifer PilgrimIn NSW’s Kings Cross, only metres away from where Thomas Kelly received a similarly fatal blow in 2012, Daniel Christie, 18, was fatally king hit by 25 year-old Shaun McNeil. McNeil also assaulted four other young men including Daniel’s brother; a violent spree that lasted only 90 seconds but will haunt Daniel’s family and friends for the rest of their lives.

This heartbreaking story is one of thousands of alcohol-fuelled violent attacks that occur each year in Australia, many are fatal.

At least 90 young lives have been taken by single hit assaults in Australia since 2000. The overwhelming majority of these involved alcohol and no other drugs.

A study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence last month, shows that alcohol intoxication not only increases aggressive offending, but also the risk of becoming a victim of a violent crime.

A recent influx of media relating to king hits and other alcohol-related harms reflects well-founded concerns by the community, emergency services, and public health experts about our binge drinking culture in Australia.

Research shows that 1 in 8 deaths of people aged under 25 is due to alcohol, with over 60 per cent of under 29 year-olds drinking with the specific intention to get drunk.

The latest example of our country’s dangerous drinking culture is a game called ‘#Neknominate’. The game has swept social media in the past week and has since gone global. ‘#Neknominate’ encourages friends to ‘nek’ or skull a beer, film it, upload the film to Facebook and nominate the next friend to do the same. Breaking the chain means losing respect among their peers.

But it’s not just the young people. As many as 20 per cent of Australians drink to excess, resulting in long-term health problems including cancer and heart disease.

Recent studies have found acute increases in alcohol–related problems in adults and young people in Australia. Alcohol-related hospitalisations have increased nation-wide since the mid-1990s, with increases in late night assaults and domestic violence related to alcohol use in Victoria

Hospital emergency departments are overflowing with victims of alcohol-related assaults and up to 90 per cent of night-time police call outs are alcohol related, putting huge stress on our emergency services. Alcohol-related crime in Australia costs $1.7 billion annually.

Tony Abbott has called for action on binge drinking and alcohol fuelled violence. The Prime Minister demanded the justice system “throw the book” at such violent offenders. He acknowledged that this is essentially an issue associated with Australia’s binge-drinking culture and also an increase in aggressive individuals who go out seeking a victim.

This affects all Australians. And we want change. The Australian National Council on Drugs reports that 80 per cent of the community wants something done about alcohol-related harm. Over 23,000 people have already signed a petition formed by families of king hit victims, calling for tougher minimum sentences for manslaughter, stronger liquor licencing laws, education campaigns and cultural change.

One of the issues associated with prosecuting these random acts of violence is the jury must be convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the death from a single punch was foreseeable.

Current campaigns seek to publicise the fact that one punch can kill, so that violent offenders cannot claim that they were unaware of the fatality of a king hit.

“One punch” laws already exist in WA and the NT, carrying sentences of up to 16 years. However, most of the king hit convictions since the introduction of these laws have resulted in sentences averaging 2 to 3 years.

So what is the answer to curb this nation-wide problem that is killing our youth?

A recent initiative by Newcastle, NSW, to curb alcohol-related violence and anti-social behaviour has been credited with cutting alcohol-related non-domestic assault rates by up to 37 per cent. This “zero tolerance policy” involves 3am bar and nightclub closing, 1am lockouts, and restrictions in the sales of ‘shots’ after 10pm.

But this approach does not tackle off-premise alcohol use and the innate issue of our binge drinking culture in Australia. It also presents problems in larger cities where police, transport and emergency services are confronted with thousands of drunken revellers hurled onto the streets all at once.

What is clear is that Australia needs a change in our approach to alcohol and that getting completely drunk as part of a regular night out is okay. We need to educate on the dangers of excessive drinking and how a single punch can change a life forever.

We need to move towards a healthier future for our country.

Australia has already demonstrated that significant changes in drug culture are possible.

Nation-wide bans on cigarette smoking in many public places, education campaigns and the removal of media imagery glamorising their use, revolutionised our approach to cigarette smoking. Less than 16 per cent of Australians smoke today – in the 1970s this figure was almost four fold.

Australia we have a drinking problem. How many more innocent lives must be taken by alcohol-fuelled violent attacks before we confront this problem?

Dr Jennifer Pilgrim is a Research Fellow in the Department of Forensic Medicine at Monash University.

This article first appeared on The Guardian.

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