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A 'thriving' night-time culture in Canberra comes with costs from alcohol use

ClubsACT acting chief executive Gwyn Rees was quick to the barricades to fight for the rights of Canberra's pubs and clubs to serve alcohol between 3am and 5am.

ClubsACT's fierce opposition to 3am last drinks is matched only by its determination and imagination in attempting to portray its membership base of 52 licensed clubs in the ACT as the "little guys", working only in the service of the Canberra community.

In reality, the industry association represents a multimillion-dollar behemoth, poker-machine palaces lubricated with alcohol and contributing a burden of harm to the local community.

Commercial lobby groups, particularly those associated with Australia's alcohol industry, are notoriously creative when it comes to cherry-picking data to argue their case. Within academic health circles, we prefer to look at the fuller picture, so here's what ClubsACT "forgot" to disclose.

Smaller clubs, with capacity for up to 80 people which trade up to midnight, pay only $2500 a year for their liquor licence.

Clubs in the ACT with a capacity for more than 350 people, which trade until 4am, pay approximately $16,000 in annual liquor licence fees.

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These same big clubs earn on average $21,000 per year from one poker machine.

That's right; the profit from one poker machine alone will more than cover the cost of the liquor licensing fee.

Many of Canberra's big clubs have more than 400 poker machines, with some boasting as many as 700.

Do the maths, and ClubsACT's opposition to paying increased licence fees on financial grounds seems at best, a little disingenuous; at worst, deliberately misleading.

In rejecting an equitable proposal that would see late-night trading venues pay more for the harms to which they clearly contribute, Mr Rees fails to explain who should shoulder the burden instead. Who should pay for the emergency department presentations, hospitalisations, policing, street cleaning and other costs from the resulting harms?

The ACT taxpayer?

Can it be that Mr Rees is seriously suggesting that ACT residents should all pay extra on our rates, merely to support ClubsACT's "right" to trade around the clock, lubricating patrons in the presence of poker machines?

ClubsACT suggests that the 17 nightclubs in 2010 have now been reduced to seven. However, Mr Rees fails to acknowledge that these changes have nothing to do with government regulation, but rather the evolving preferences of consumers and industry's failure to adapt and respond.

It is not the ACT Government's responsibility to prop up large night clubs that are unsustainable and operating on a failed and out-dated business model.

ClubsACT incorrectly assert that the "thriving nightlife culture" that "many young people enjoy" is being "destroyed".

Canberra does have a thriving nightlife and entertainment culture. One which is not dependent solely on large nightclubs that trade all hours of the night, or on the little casinos represented by ClubsACT.

Rather, Canberra's vibrancy is the result of the large numbers of diverse venues that open and close well before 3am.

ClubsACT have similarly not allowed any inconvenient facts interfere with a financially motivated opinion when it comes to alcohol harm in the region.

To suggest that somehow the ACT is the one Australian jurisdiction immune to alcohol harm is demonstrably untrue.

The latest harms data is irrefutable. On the frontline of health, we bear witness to these harms every day.

Between March 2015 and 2016 alcohol-related ambulance attendances increased by 5.6 per cent up from 550 to 581. Similarly, sobering-up centre referrals increased by 19 per cent, from 121 to 144.

Between 2013-14 and 2014-15 emergency data presentations for people with the toxic effects for alcohol have increased by 7.3 per cent (from 710 to 762), and emergency presentations for alcohol-related injuries in the ACT have increased by five per cent (from 7057 to 7411).

Winding back trading hours to 3am will not end our vibrant nightlife. It will enhance it, by making our city a safer place to go at night. 3am is by no means early or overly restrictive.

We believe that our elected representatives will put the interests of the whole community ahead of the self-interest of a small number of venues that feel hard done by when community health is put ahead of profit.

Dr David Caldicott is an emergency physician and Senior Clinical Lecturer in Medicine, at the ANU.

Michael Thorn is chief executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education.