Calls grow for Government to lift drinking age after worrying increase in alcohol-fuelled assaults.
This week Ralph and Kathy Kelly stood outside a Sydney court to express their pain and anger. Inside, prosecutors had just dropped a charge of murder against the man accused of fatally king-hitting their 19-year-old son, allowing instead a plea of guilty to manslaughter.
'We are here today for our son Thomas, who cannot speak for himself and will never speak again," Kathy Kelly said. "Our family has lost a son, a brother, a grandson, a nephew and cousin. What has the perpetrator lost?"
Kelly's death at the hands of Kieran Loveridge, who also pleaded guilty to five other assaults in Sydney on the same night in July last year, was not the first alcohol-fuelled assault to outrage the city.
Saudi Arabian student Ahmed Aledal, 25, and 26-year-old Simon Cramp both spent weeks in comas after being king-hit in unprovoked attacks in Sydney. Hundreds of others have also been assaulted by violent drunks.
The New South Wales Government has responded with a range of measures including more powers for police, new offences and tougher drinking rules: no shots, doubles or pre-mixed drinks and a maximum round of four after midnight, and no alcohol sales in the hour before closing.
But there are increasing demands for action on the underlying cause - what the Australian Institute of Criminology says is a "well-established culture" of drinking to get drunk, especially among the young.
This week a national forum on teenage binge drinking joined a growing call for the drinking age to be lifted across Australia from 18 to 21 as evidence increases of the immediate cost of teenage drinking and the long-term health and social dangers that follow.
The forum was told Australian teenagers are twice as likely to abuse alcohol as young Americans who are now barred from drinking until 21. Studies have further associated a 16 per cent fall in American teenage driving accidents with a raising of the legal drinking age there.
Demands for a higher drinking age are reflected in public opinion, which has swung towards a return to the earlier 21-year minimum. The federal Government's national drug strategy household survey has shown support for raising the drinking age has increased from 40 per cent to 50 per cent.
The Australian Medical Association last year said the drinking age should be increased to 25 to reduce alcohol-fuelled violence, accidents and alcoholism. Australia's drinking culture starts young. Studies have shown that as many as 90 per cent have tried alcohol by the age of 14, and most have consumed a full serving of alcohol before the age of 16.
A 10-year study of 3000 Victorian teenagers found that 45 per cent had drinking problems by age 23, and Deakin University youth development researcher Professor John Toumbourou said one in five Australians in their 20s suffered a dependence causing shakes and seizures if without alcohol.
Researchers say the brain is still developing when 18-year-olds are allowed to drink legally, with binge sessions potentially reducing emotional and intellectual development and increasing the likelihood of later alcohol dependence.
Bingeing teens are also at greater risk of developing mental illness, such as depression, and of moving on to other drugs.
Young Australian women are now equally in danger. The AMA says that by the age of 18 about half of both males and females are drinking at risky levels. Alcohol-related hospital admissions of 18- to 24-year-old women have doubled in the past decade.
The AMA says 80 per cent of alcohol imbibed by 14- to 24-year-olds is consumed in ways that put the drinker's - and others' - health at risk.
Violence rates high among the consequences. The Criminology Institute says up to 73 per cent of all assaults involve alcohol, and that 15- to 24-year-olds account for more than half of all alcohol-related serious injuries and one in three alcohol-attributable hospital admissions for injuries caused by violence.