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The drinking and the damage done

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For Ralph and Kathy Kelly, the enormous daily toll alcohol takes on the nation’s health and well-being has a deeply personal and devastating resonance.

Little more than two years ago their 18-year-old son, Thomas, was killed in a completely unprovoked alcohol-fuelled attack during what was meant to be a harmless night out with friends in Sydney’s entertainment district.

Moments after Thomas got out of a taxi in King’s Cross, a complete stranger charged out of the darkness and punched him so hard in the head that he dropped instantly to the ground and never regained consciousness. Within two days he was dead.

In a powerful address to the AMA National Alcohol Summit, Mr Kelly said of that moment that it changed his world, and that of his family, forever.

In a video played at the Summit, Mrs Kelly said how, “each and every day we pray he is safe and happy, he’ll never leave our hearts and the sadness is that he’ll never have a 21st birthday, he’ll never be married. We won’t be grandparents to his children, and that’s what we have now lost”.

The Kelly’s experience is, tragically, far from unique.

Alcohol-fuelled assaults

Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) Chief Executive Michael Thorn told the Summit that more than 70,000 people a year are the victims of alcohol-related assaults, and more than 24,000 suffer alcohol-fuelled domestic violence.

In all, around 5 per cent of those aged 14 years or older report having been physically attacked by someone under the influence of alcohol, and 25 per cent say they have been the victim of alcohol-related verbal abuse.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler told the Summit the children were also victims of the nation’s drinking culture, with at least 20,000 a year suffering alcohol-related abuse.

A/Professor Owler, who is a paediatric neurosurgeon, said in his practise he frequently saw “the results of willing abuse of a child’s brain. It makes up a surprisingly large proportion of our work”.

Mr Thorn told the Summit that 5500 people die every year from alcohol-related causes, and a further 150,000 end up in hospital – the equivalent of 15 deaths and 430 hospitalisations every day.

A survey of more than 2000 emergency department doctors and nurses by the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine found that almost all had been attacked or threatened by drunk patients in the previous year, and up to a third of patients in some areas required treatment for alcohol-related harm.

Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner Dr Howard Bath detailed the enormous damage being caused in Aboriginal communities by alcohol.

Dr Bath said Indigenous people in the NT died from alcohol-related causes at 10 times the rate of other Territorians, and were twice as likely to be hospitalised because of assaults as Aboriginals in the rest of the country.

“The toll alcohol is taking on the population is devastating,” he said. “It is truly a beverage of mass destruction. Binge drinking does not capture what is happening. People are drinking themselves into a stupor. It is a tragedy on a broad scale.

Alcohol and domestic violence

While alcohol-fuelled street violence tends to grab most public attention, speakers at the Summit emphasised that many people – mostly women and children – are attack at home in assaults that are triggered or exacerbated by alcohol.

Co-director of Deakin University’s Violence Prevention Program Associate Professor Peter Miller told the Summit that domestic violence was “much more prevalent” than street violence.

Director of the Judith Lumley Centre at La Trobe University, Professor Angela Taft, said alcohol was implicated in a third to a half of all domestic violence incidents, and 44 per cent of cases of partner violence were alcohol-related.

A/Professor Miller said that although moderate drinkers made up the bulk of both perpetrators and victims of domestic violence, the likelihood of an assault increased dramatically the more that was consumed.

He said research showed that the ready availability of alcohol, rather than its price, was strongly related to rates of assault: “If you put a Dan Murphy’s in a deprived suburb, you get a 26 per cent increase in domestic violence assaults”.

He said taking alcohol out of the equation was the “low hanging fruit” in action to reduce the incidence of domestic violence.

Australia’s drinking culture

A/Professor Owler said the health problems and injuries caused by alcohol amounted to an enormous burden on the health system, and contributed to the huge cost imposed on society by the drug – estimated to be up to $36 billion a year.

The AMA President said it was too easy for governments and others to sidestep the issue and paint the misuse of alcohol as a matter of personal responsibility.

He said, instead, that harmful drinking had multiple and complex causes, including community attitudes (which are in turn shaped and influenced by many factors including marketing and advertising), price and availability.

A/Professor Owler told the Summit that alcohol marketing had had a profound influence on the way Australians behave and the way they viewed themselves.

“To drink beer is to be Australian. In fact, not to drink heavily is almost un-Australian,” he said. “We have learnt to pride ourselves on our ability to consume alcohol. [But] I think we have been sold a dud. Australia is a much more sophisticated society than that.”

The Summit was told of the enormously sophisticated and effective strategies used by alcohol manufacturers to promote their products that include, but go far beyond, mass media advertising.

Professor Sandra Jones of the Australian Catholic University Health Institute said society needed to be concerned about alcohol marketing because of the strong association between it and the tendency of young people to drink earlier in life and more heavily.

Professor Jones said companies used sophisticated pricing and promotional tactics to lure in young drinkers, including working assiduously on building and maintaining a close association with professional sport.

Monash University’s Associate Professor Kerry O’Brien said that up to 80 per cent of alcohol company marketing budgets were spent on sport.

“Sport plays a huge part in normalising alcohol in our lives,” A/Professor O’Brien said. “Sport has really strong emotional ties for people, and products associated with that also tap into that emotion.”

He said that alcohol products were advertised during sports broadcasts on television at 4.3 times the rate they were promoted during non-sports programs, and between 35 and 45 per cent of sports people received some form of alcohol sponsorship.

Adrian Rollins