Comment

Stop alcohol-fuelled violence - it's killing our youth

Binge drinking has become a huge problem, and is linked with one in eight deaths for people under 25

Illustration: Andrew Dyson
Illustration: Andrew Dyson 

The tragic death of Thomas Kelly, king hit in Sydney's Kings Cross last year, brought to the forefront the devastating consequences of alcohol-fuelled violence in Australia.

Kieran Loveridge received a non-parole period of four years for the killing, sparking outrage from Thomas' parents, victim groups and the wider community. Loveridge, who was on conditional liberty at the time of the offence, had assaulted four other strangers that same night.

NSW is set to introduce a new offence of unlawful assault causing death, carrying a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail. Momentum is gaining for other Australian states to follow suit. Western Australia and the Northern Territory already have the ''one-punch'' law,fas with penalties of up to 16 years.

Unfortunately, Thomas' case was one of countless alcohol-fuelled single-punch deaths, not to mention the numerous individuals who survive an assault but end up with permanent physical and mental disabilities.

Ninety deaths have been attributed to single-punch assaults around Australia since 2000. Too many young lives are being cut short by these senseless acts of violence.

Alarmingly, this figure is likely to be an underestimation of the true number of single-punch deaths. As well, there are the numerous other types of assaults involving multiple hits or the use of weapons.

Despite common belief that these late-night assaults involve the use of drugs and alcohol, a study to be published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence this month strongly suggests that it is alcohol alone to blame in the overwhelming majority of single-punch fatalities.

And while public perception of drinking and violence generally arouses the image of the aggressive drunken offender, it is also clear that alcohol intoxication also substantially increases the risk of being a victim of a violent attack.

Few would be surprised that alcohol is regarded as the biggest contributor to substance-related violent fatalities. As total volume of alcohol sales increase, so does the rate of fatal assaults.

This means hundreds of facial repairs, thousands of brain injuries, and billions of dollars in healthcare costs.

So what is the answer to curb this increasing social and financial burden on society? Policy makers have consistently debated solutions such as reducing licensed venue trading hours, greater penalties for problem drinkers, increased taxes on alcoholic beverages, improved education campaigns, or limiting advertising and marketing strategies that encourage alcohol consumption, particularly to young people.

However, research shows that many young people go out intending to get drunk. So strategies aiming to counteract this may realistically not be as effective as approaches to manage the drinking environment, in order to reduce harm.

Binge drinking on a weekly basis is the norm in this country. The latest figures from the Australian National Council on Drugs reveal that binge drinking is now linked to one in eight deaths for people under 25. Although young people generally drink on fewer occasions overall, they are consuming at higher risk levels each time, increasing their risk of long-term health problems and other alcohol-related harms.

We're not the only country in the world with heavy drinking inherent in our national identity. Perhaps the problem lies in the normalisation of getting drunk in this country.

We need to change the "Go on, have another one mate" mentality. We need a change in Australia's drinking culture.

Many are sceptical that this can be achieved, but it has been done before. Forty years ago cigarette smoking was ingrained in our culture, with about half the population smoking.

Advertisements and marketing were littered with images of fashionable young people enjoying life: cigarette in hand.

With less than 16 per cent of Australians now smoking, nation-wide bans on smoking in many public places, education campaigns and the removal of media imagery glamorising their use, our smoking culture is a far cry from the 1970s.

Generational change is the key to a healthier future for Australia. Those who drink responsibly should still be able to enjoy alcohol, but we need to educate and inform the younger generations of the harms of alcohol misuse in order to encourage a cultural shift in our attitude to drinking. We need to limit alcohol advertising and sponsorship in settings where children and adolescents are likely to be exposed to it, including sporting events and social media. Sites popular amongst young adults such as Facebook and other social media sites are saturated with alcohol marketing, encouraging a culture of excessive drinking in young people.

We learn by example and that example needs to be set and learnt in the home first; to encourage a healthier attitude and culture around drinking alcohol.

We also need more research and data behind these incidents. History shows that research and intervention can make an impact upon substance-related assaults. Australia needs to know that a single-punch after a big night out can be fatal.

Although attitudes are difficult to change, it is clear that the level of alcohol-related harm in Australia will continue to rise unless we accept that there is a problem with our drinking culture and work towards changing it. We did it with smoking, we can do it with alcohol - and we must.

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