Caption

Come and get it: An increasing number of bottle shops has led to discounting, making cheaper to drink at home than go to a pub and encouraging the practice of pre-loading. Photo: Edwina Pickles

If you are cooking red meat tonight, you could try pairing it with Precious Earth Shiraz Merlot. A careful blend of south-east Australian grapes, it is great for outdoor entertaining - and so cheap it will make your eyes water. In fact, at $2.69 a bottle from Aldi's Minto store, it costs about the same as a bottle of water, and less than a kilo of grapes.

As a place to stock up the liquor cabinet it is ''cheap'', says Minto resident Sylvain Gaiquy of the cavernous, fluoro-lit store, after buying a bottle of scotch as part of a morning grocery shop. But asked if the suburb needs more bottle shops, he shakes his head. ''There's plenty here, and in Leumeah there's two,'' he said, referring to the suburb up the road. ''There's too much crime … if there are too many [bottle shops] kids have easy access.''

When the liquor regulator knocked back Woolworths' bid to build a new bottle shop in Minto last month, it was a small but symbolic rebuff to an industry that is thundering into suburbs across NSW.

The ruling also highlighted the dizzying jumble of competing claims in the debate over whether more bottle shops equate to more alcohol consumed, and more social damage done.

Community advocate Tony Brown says the public, and regulators, are awakening to this ''king-tide of alcohol'' and its potentially devastating aftermath.

''There are integral connections between the proliferation of bottle shops, the dirt-cheap price of liquor and its contribution to domestic violence and pre-loading,'' he said referring to the practice where people fill up on store-bought liquor before hitting pubs and clubs.

''It's overdue that the gaze is focused on the key contributing role [bottle shops] play in alcohol-related harm.''

Despite the heavy scrutiny applied to pubs and clubs in the alcohol debate, estimates suggest up to 80 per cent of national liquor spending is on takeaway purchases.

In NSW, it is increasingly easy to find a bottle shop. The number of takeaway outlets rose last year to about 2300 - a 38 per cent increase in five years, largely triggered by relaxed competition and licensing laws.

As binge drinking and king-hits continue, NSW Assistant Police Commissioner Mark Murdoch says bottle shops must share the blame. ''You can put the trailer on the back of the Commodore and pull up to Dan Murphy's and fill that trailer up every day of the week and no one bats an eyelid,'' he said.

''We've … beaten down venue operators to the point where the security on the doors is very, very vigilant [but] we've got a lot of people coming into the city already drunk and just hanging around on the street getting into trouble.''

However, Australian Liquor Stores Association chief executive Terry Mott says that ''fairly colourful'' view does not reflect the true picture. There is ''no evidence'' to suggest that bottle shops contribute to alcohol-related harm, Mott says, adding that crime figures show as the industry burgeoned in NSW, domestic violence rates declined.

''There is a broader cultural issue that as a community we have to work on together,'' he says. ''Numerous factors, primarily an individual's personal behaviour and drinking patterns, are the key to better outcomes, not simplistic … solutions.''

But in the Minto decision, at least, the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority was not convinced, concluding that off-premises drinking ''is likely to be a significant driver of domestic violence'' and the area was already ''overexposed'' to alcohol-related crime.

The problem was even more acute in ''financially constrained'' suburbs such as Minto where unemployment and public housing rates are high, the authority said, given that takeaway liquor is far cheaper than drinking at the pub.

Woolworths argued the proposed BWS store would deliver new jobs and an ''improved shopping experience'', saying there was ''no evidence'' it would exacerbate alcohol-related crime.

The company cited broad geographic data indicating the area was better off than most in socio-economic indicators. However, it failed to highlight figures for Minto specifically, which is classed as ''very disadvantaged''.

The regulator was heavily swayed by the Department of Family and Community Services, whose submission said child neglect, violence and juvenile crime were a ''major concern'' in Minto - issues made worse by alcohol use.

A department spokesman said the increasing number of liquor outlets and hours of operation were also concerning. In south-west Sydney alone, the agency made submissions on 26 licence applications last year, up from six the previous year.

Woolworths insisted that adding one more bottle shop in Minto would not make drinkers consume more, saying new liquor stores simply ''cannibalise sales'' from other outlets.

But the authority said there was insufficient data to prove or disprove that claim, which is routinely cited by the industry.

It noted the NSW government did not force stores to collect alcohol sales data - unlike states such as Western Australia, where the figures have allowed researchers to draw links between a community's liquor consumption and its assault rates.

However, new rules for Kings Cross require licensed premises to collect such data and an independent review of the Liquor Act, before the government, says the measure should be considered in other problem precincts.

Mott says the trend towards large ''destination'' liquor stores that attracted customers from far and wide meant sales data would bear little correlation to where alcohol was consumed.

But Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education chief executive Michael Thorn says without such data ''we don't actually know what's going on in communities''.

''[Sales figures] are not going to tell us everything about the world's alcohol problems but it's the primary data we need to establish: what's being drunk, how much is being consumed and where. That has to be a good thing,'' he said.

Critics of the bottle shop chains have also called for restricted trading hours, a crackdown on advertising and promotion and minimum alcohol pricing.

However, the industry insists the regulatory regime is working.

Woolworths, which is considering its response to the Minto decision, has previously said it employs a range of measures to ensure alcohol is supplied and promoted responsibly. Aldi says it is a ''responsible and experienced retailer'', adding that alcohol sold in its stores is not chilled for immediate consumption, which discourages impulse purchases.

A Coles spokeswoman says a minority of Australians consume alcohol ''in a harmful manner'' and the company supports education and enforcement targeting problem drinkers.

However, Sandra Jones, director of the centre for health initiatives at the University of Wollongong, rejects the argument that those who drink responsibly are unfairly penalised by stringent alcohol laws.

''The industry tries to [imply] they are lobbying for the consumer while the government and the hospital system are trying to stop you having fun,'' she said. ''But I think people are smarter than that.''

''[Responsible drinkers] don't want to feel unsafe walking down the street, they don't want to risk their teenage son going out and getting king-hit.

''As a parent you want to know that if your kids go out, they're going to come home.''

 

The options

1. The Newcastle solution

A 1am lockout and 3am closing time for all pubs and clubs. Modelled on the measures imposed on Newcastle hotels by the Liquor Administration Board in 2008 which resulted in a 37 per cent fall in violence in the following year. The state government is being urged to run an 18-month trial of the scheme to assess its effectiveness in reducing alcohol-related assaults.

 

2. Tougher sentencing

Ralph and Kathy Kelly, the parents of assault victim Thomas Kelly, want alcohol or drug use to become a ‘‘mandatory aggravating factor’’ in sentencing. The proposal would mean courts would likely apply more severe penalties if an offence such as assault involves intoxication.

 

3. Risk-based liquor licensing

Pubs and clubs would pay a periodic fee for the first time for their liquor licence based on the risk factors attached to their venue. Larger, more violent establishments would pay a higher fee. A key recommendation of the recent five-year statutory review of the Liquor Act by former public servant Michael Foggo.

 

4. More police and better public transport

The NSW branch of the Australian Hotels Association wants more police on the streets to prevent alcohol-fuelled assaults. The lobby group also says there should be better late night public transport options.

 

5. Bottle shop crackdown

Senior police have expressed concern about the impact of ‘‘pre-loading’’ or drinking at home before heading to a licensed venue. Police commissioner Andrew Scipione and assistant commissioner Mark Murdoch have criticised the ability to bulk buy at bottle shops. Liquor licensing authorities have expressed concern about bottle shop density in some areas.