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Are alcohol bans effective?

Research tells us that there is a clear link between alcohol and crime.

Recently in Australia there has been much discussion around the re-introduction of alcohol bans as a measure to curb crime in the Northern Territory. Alcohol bans have been implemented throughout history, from the 1920 United States constitutional prohibition in response to domestic violence and other social issues, to South Africa banning alcohol four different times to stop people from gathering and to free up hospital beds during the COVID-19 pandemic. But how effective are they?

First, research tells us that there is a clear link between alcohol and crime. Intoxication directly effects our brain in a way that can lead to criminal and antisocial behaviours. It can exacerbate some people’s aggressive tendencies by negatively impacting their cognitive function. Pairing this with an increased chance to take risks and a sense of invincibility, this can lead to a range of criminal behaviour such as domestic violence, public aggressiveness, and theft.

Data worldwide links crime and alcohol. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 27 percent of police detainees had consumed alcohol 24 hours leading up to their arrest, and the median level of consumption was 10 standard drinks. In the United States, the National Council on alcoholism and drug dependence released data revealing 40 percent of all violent crime the United States involved alcohol consumption. Drinkaware UK released similar data with 42 percent of offenders in all violent incidents linked to influence of alcohol in England and Wales.

Health and diet researcher Samuel Cassidy from Victoria University says that the impact of alcohol on crime in society is still understated.

“Most people talk about the health issues like liver failure and cancer but psychologically, it no doubt contributes to bad behaviour,” he tells upstart.

“Especially with men. It can make them overconfident and feel a little invincible.”

Cassidy says that the slowing down of cognitive functioning may lead to possible criminal activity like fighting, poor decision making and domestic abuse.

There is also the issue of when people gather in groups to drink.

“It is manageable if one person is drunk and behaving wrong, but when a group of people and in some cases towns or communities, are drinking heavily, that’s when we see the high levels of crime,” he says.

The data shows that alcohol impacts crime in the community, but how effective can banning or limiting alcohol be in reducing crime and antisocial behaviour?

The state-wide legislative reforms that took place in New South Wales, Australia, restricting the trading hours and trading conditions of licensed premises between 2008 and 2012 were associated with a fall in assaults. The reforms were put in place after recommendations to “minimise harm associated with misuse and abuse of liquor including harm arising from violence and other anti-social behaviour.”

The Society for the Study of Addiction analysed all NSW assaults counting as actual bodily harm (ABH) and grievous bodily harm (GBH) between January 1996 and December 2013. The models relayed that in the period of alcohol serving restrictions ABH fell by 31.27 percent and GBH fell by 39.70 percent.

Effects have been seen in other countries as well. In 2010, Lithuania had the highest rate of alcohol-attributable years of life lost in the European Union. This led them to implement policies such as increasing the minimum drinking age, restricting alcohol advertising and limiting alcohol sale time. The first of these policies were implemented in 2008 and by 2016 there was a 20 percent decrease in years of life lost.

More recent data leaked from the Alice Springs Hospital emergency department after the 2023 re-introduction of alcohol bans found that alcohol bans had a positive impact in the healthcare system, although these bans were much stricter than the New South Wales restrictions. According to the ABC, short-term statistics showed that there were fewer than 100 domestic violence presentations at the hospital in February this year, compared with 246 in December 2022. Alcohol related presentations in the hospital dropped from 731 cases in December 2022 to 390 this February.

However, total alcohol bans, implicating the entire community, are not the only option. Some areas of Australia have opted out of banning alcohol and have instead decided to implement a banned drinker register (BDR), targeting individuals. The registers allows police and the courts to list people for alcohol-related offending including alcohol-related violence and drink driving. In principle this stops alcohol bans for everyone in a community area while keeping those behaving incorrectly accountable.

John Toumbourou, Chief in Health Psychology at Deakin University, says the BDR could decrease crime levels, but numerous factors need to be taken into account.

“It requires evaluation…some people have health or behavioural problems that make them more vulnerable to loss of control due to alcohol,” he tells upstart. “This is why there are alcohol prohibitions for individuals that have demonstrated problems with alcohol, such as those caught driving while intoxicated,” he tells upstart.

Toumbourou also can see a future where a BDR is put in place across the whole of Australia, questioning whether the national government can continue to pay for the health effects alcohol has in Australia.

“Can we continue to pay billions in tax dollars to mop up the health and social harms caused by the free market in alcohol?” he said. “Other countries such as New Zealand have taken the position with tobacco that it will be gradually withdrawn as a free market commodity.”

He also isn’t concerned with any moral issues associated with putting possible offenders on the register.

“It is morally wrong for companies to profit from alcohol with no regulation or restrictions,” he said. “So vulnerable individuals such as minors and those for whom alcohol triggers loss of control should be protected from themselves.”

The data from various bans in Australia does show improvement in regards to decreasing crime but the effects of complicated issues such as systematic discrimination, poor education and lack of available employment is hard to measure.

Research surrounding alcohol and crime shows that the two can go hand in hand, and that implementing harsher restrictions or full-time bans may improve crime and antisocial behaviour. However many experts believe that while the quick fix of banning alcohol may immediately reduce crime levels in places such as Alice Springs, the deep cultural and systematic issues won’t be resolved by them. Instead, they say sustained assistance to the communities where these bans are proposed is critical.

ARTICLE | Aidan Ginn is a third-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University.

PHOTO | ‘Drive-through bottle shop by Tamsin Slater is available HERE and used under a creative commons license. The image has not been modified.

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