Earlier pub closing times key to reducing alcohol-fuelled assaults
Earlier pub closing times have a large impact on curbing alcohol-fuelled violence, according to research my colleagues and I have published today in the international peer-reviewed journal Drug & Alcohol Review.
Along with systematic reviews of the scientific literature, these findings suggest the New South Wales government's new laws requiring most pubs, bars, and clubs in Sydney's central business district to stop serving alcohol at 3am are likely to reduce assault rates.
The research published today shows the large positive effects of the March 2008 restriction in pub closing times in Newcastle's central business district continue while "softer" measures (including lockouts) introduced in neighbouring Hamilton from 2010 have been ineffective.
Previous research showed the late-night assault rate in central Newcastle fell by a third in the 18 months to September 2009, without evidence of violence being displaced to the earlier hours of the evening or neighbouring areas. This latest study shows the effects have been sustained in the five years to March 2013.
A successful experiment
Due to frequent episodes of alcohol-related violence and other disorder in the central business district of Newcastle, the NSW Liquor Administration Board (since abolished) imposed restrictions on 14 venues in 2008. Pubs and clubs were required to close at 3:30am, and to implement a 1:30am lockout to prevent new patrons from entering the venue.
Lockouts, in which patrons can remain drinking but cannot enter new premises after a certain time, are unique to Australasia. They've only been studied a handful of times, and some of the research published in scientific journals has significant design limitations. Indeed, the most we can say about lockouts is that they're not supported by scientific evidence.
What occurred in Hamilton — no significant reduction in the assault rate over five years — is consistent with this view of lockouts being ineffective. Clearly, earlier closing times or at least stopping alcohol sales earlier is the key to preventing assaults.
Regrettably, there's confusion among media commentators about the distinction between the cessation of alcohol sales and lockouts.
Confusing two measures
Last week for instance, public policy fellow at the University of Melbourne and former senior policy adviser to a Victorian Labor government, Nicholas Reece published an opinion piece in Fairfax newspapers in which he criticised NSW's alcohol laws based on just such a misunderstanding.
Reece conflated lockouts, which now come into effect at 1:30am in Sydney's central business district, with the cessation of alcohol sales, which now occurs at 3am, citing a study of lockouts in Ballarat (not available online).
That study was poorly designed and not published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. It shouldn't be the basis of a news item, let alone public policy.
Reece argued that in the same way the supposed benefits of lockouts in Ballarat didn't translate to Melbourne, the findings from Newcastle will not translate to Sydney.
But Reece's op-ed obscures two important facts. First, Ballarat is a large town with a population of 95,000 people, while Newcastle is Australia's sixth largest city, with more than half a million people. While Ballarat to Melbourne may be a stretch, it's not unreasonable to expect that effects observed in Newcastle will generalise to other large metropolitan areas in Australia.
Second, the intervention in Newcastle produced large and persistent benefits and the research has been subject to robust peer review with findings that are consistent with a growing body of international literature.
Indeed, the Newcastle findings are comparable with those of a recent study of changes in closing times in Norway in the 2000s, the most comprehensive such research so far because many localities could be studied contemporaneously.
That study found that in eight cities where trading hours were extended, there was an average 20% increase in assaults per additional hour of trading. Conversely, in 15 cities where hours were restricted, there was an average 20% decrease in assaults per hour of restriction.
The short-term effect in Newcastle (22% per hour restricted) and the effect estimated for the following 3.5 years (21% per hour restricted) are remarkably similar to the Norwegian experience.
Giving credit where it's due
In a media release late last week, the Australian Hotels Association cited Reece's article in support of its position, again conflating cessation of sales with lockouts:
We've always been sceptical that blanket lockouts won't work in a city like Sydney, and this week a former senior Victorian public servant involved with the failed Melbourne lockout confirmed that view.
Of course, there are things the New South Wales government could have done better. It makes no sense to exclude two areas close to the city with very high alcohol-related crime rates (Oxford St and Darling Harbour) from the restrictions, for instance, but credit should be given where it's due.
The Sydney intervention is a step in the right direction, acknowledging the need to balance the interests of the alcohol industry with public health.
A leap forward
The Newcastle intervention has prevented between 3,000 and 4,000 assaults in the six years since it was put in place. Such large effects are rare in population health interventions.
It would be worthwhile costing these assaults in terms of emergency response, medical care, disability, foregone income, and lost productivity, and to assess the public's willingness to continue bearing the cost of late-night trading.
In addition to redrawing the Sydney central business district boundary to include all assault hotspots, the New South Wales government would be wise to stop consumption (rather than just the purchase) of alcohol at 3am, or even 2am, as has been the case in California for many decades.
And other states considering legislation to help address the problem of late-night assault should clearly focus on earlier cessation of drinking rather than lockouts.
Kypros Kypri receives funding from the National Health & Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council.