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Early drinks call as alcohol toll hits 500,000

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Emergency doctors are calling for the nationwide adoption of early closing and pub lock-out laws amid estimates that 500,000 people a year end up in hospital because of the effects of alcohol.

Echoing AMA calls for a national strategy to tackle alcohol-related harm, the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine has urged other states and territories to follow the lead of the New South Wales government in cracking down on the availability of alcohol in late-night entertainment districts.

The College made its call after conducting a study which showed a high proportion of emergency department patients are affected by alcohol.

The study, which involved screening 9600 patients presenting at eight emergency departments in Australia and New Zealand during a one-week period in December last year, found that 8.3 per cent of all visits were related to alcohol, and the proportion jumped to one in eight presentations during peak periods.

Chair of the College’s Public Health Committee, Associate Professor Diana Egerton-Warburton, said the scale of the problem was surprising and disturbing.

“That equates to more than half a million alcohol-related patients attending EDs every year across Australia and New Zealand,” A/Professor Egerton-Warburton said. “It confirms that alcohol is having a huge impact on our emergency departments.”

Last year, a National Alcohol Summit organised by the AMA heard that the damage caused by alcohol – ranging from street violence, traffic accidents and domestic assaults through to poor health, absenteeism and premature death – cost the community up to $36 billion a year.

AMA President Professor Brian Owler told the Summit that alcohol misuse was one of the major health issues confronting the country: “Alcohol-related harm pervades society. It is a problem that deserves a nationally consistent response and strategy.”

While the Queensland Government has joined NSW in pushing for earlier closing times and lock-outs, Professor Owler said the Commonwealth needed to take the lead in developing a coherent and comprehensive strategy to tackle alcohol-related harm that went well beyond calls for individuals take more personal responsibility to address the nation’s drinking culture and increase investment prevention.

Previous studies by the College of Emergency Medicine have shown the high prevalence of alcohol among patients seeking treatment at inner-city hospital emergency departments on Friday and Saturday nights.

But A/Professor Egerton-Warburton said the most recent study was aimed at gaining a broader understanding of the role played by alcohol in ED presentations by extending the time-frame to a week, and including outer metropolitan, rural and regional hospitals in the sample.

She said the results underlined just how pervasive alcohol-related harms were, and how the effects of this ripple through the health system.

“One drunk person can disrupt an entire ED,” A/Professor Egerton-Warburton said. “They are often violent and aggressive, make staff feel unsafe and impact negatively on the care of other patients.”

She said the sheer volume of alcohol-affected patients going through emergency departments meant that they were much more disruptive than patients on the drug ice.

A/Professor Egerton-Warburton said evidence showed that early closing and lock-out laws worked, resulting in a 38 per cent reduction in serious injuries related to alcohol.

“This is a rare opportunity to take policy action that we know works.

“Other jurisdictions should follow NSW, and now Queensland, in introducing early closing times and reducing the availability of alcohol.

“Policy makers have the power to reduce the tide of human tragedy from alcohol harm.”

The AMA National Alcohol Summit Communique can be viewed at: media/ama-national-alcohol-summit-communique

Adrian Rollins