Rebecca Williams: Alcohol vendors share blame for drink-related harm

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A number of researchers draw the conclusion that alcohol causes violence, and with good reason. Photo / iStock
A number of researchers draw the conclusion that alcohol causes violence, and with good reason. Photo / iStock

Lizzie Marvelly reignited the debate on alcohol and violence with a Herald column calling for trading hours in the Auckland CBD to be drawn back.

Jenesa Jeram from the New Zealand Initiative responded by calling for the blame for violent and anti-social behaviour to be laid "back on the perpetrators", the so-called "irresponsible drinkers".

Admittedly, the question of whether alcohol directly causes violence gets dragged into a grey area, largely due to differing theoretical or ideological opinions. Regardless, a number of researchers here and abroad do draw the conclusion that alcohol causes violence, and with good reason. There is no scientific doubt alcohol increases the risk, frequency and severity of violence.

Of course not all drinkers become aggressive, but, in saying that, much of what happens as a result of drinking goes unrecorded, and many incidents that do come to the attention of our public services quite often do not accurately pinpoint alcohol's involvement. The full extent of alcohol-related violence in New Zealand is not known.

The mechanisms for alcohol's role in violence, and indeed other harms, stem from the key active ingredient in alcoholic beverages - ethanol.

Ethanol is a psychoactive neurotoxin. It impairs brain function. Alcohol affects the way we process information, make decisions and respond to the things going on around us. The extent of impairment generally reflects the amount consumed.

There are other factors of course, such as settings, personality and any previous neurological damage.

Research has found that alcohol increases aggression more than any other psychoactive substance, and thus the risk of violence. Perpetrators of violence tend to be heavy drinkers, and more than 40 per cent of alcohol consumed in New Zealand is consumed on heavy drinking occasions.

Victims of violence are also highly likely to misuse alcohol and other drugs during their lifetime (often using alcohol as a coping mechanism).

National and international studies show there is a significant relationship between the concentration of alcohol outlets and rates of violence, with higher numbers of outlets in a geographic area resulting in higher rates of violence. Increases in retail alcohol sales and longer trading hours also statistically increase the risk of alcohol-related violence.

Perpetrators who have been drinking are responsible for more than 62,000 physical assaults and 10,000 sexual assaults every year.

From another perspective, in the 10 weeks following the introduction of new laws requiring all on-licence outlets to be closed by 4am and off-licences by 11pm, New Zealand police reported an 18 per cent drop in serious assaults causing injury and public disorder offences compared to the same period for the previous three years across the country.

A recent report from Australia showed lockout laws and alcohol restrictions in Sydney had cut assaults by 40 per cent.

Ms Jeram may want to shift the responsibility on to consumers, but it's past time for the alcohol industry and associated business interests to acknowledge that the evidence is pretty clear. Reduced alcohol consumption means fewer incidences of violence.

Of course drinkers are responsible for whatever they do, but we need to be sceptical when corporate interests fashion themselves as just benign purveyors of our favourite drug. They are making a profit from our heavy drinking.

Tax collected from alcohol is usually around $800 million a year, but the social harms cost around $5 billion. The balance of responsibility is heavily out of kilter.

Rebecca Williams is director of Alcohol Healthwatch.

- NZ Herald

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