As the Australia Day public holiday approaches, it’s a good time to reflect on our attitudes to alcohol and the role it plays in our lives. That’s because too many Victorians drink too much and drink more around public holidays like Australia Day.
By Dr Bruce Bolam
A considerable number of Victorians are drinking a LOT of alcohol
The most recent VicHealth Indicators Survey, published in November 2016, found that almost 500,000 Victorians drink 11 or more drinks on a single occasion, and they’re doing this on a monthly basis1.
Drinking four drinks on a single occasion doubles your relative risk of an alcohol related injury and the relative risk rises more rapidly after four drinks2. It’s very concerning that almost half a million Victorians regularly put themselves at very high risk of an alcohol-related injury from drinking such high levels of alcohol.
Victorians drink more around public holidays
Consuming alcohol in Australia is enmeshed with celebration and cultural traditions, and there are significant increases in alcohol-related incidents in the lead up to most public holidays, including Australia Day3. A 2015 VicHealth survey found that one third of Victorians still think it’s okay to get drunk to celebrate a public holiday and on the weekend of a public holiday.
We buy a lot of alcohol from packaged liquor outlets
An estimated 80 per cent of alcohol is purchased from packaged liquor outlets, so it’s likely most of the alcohol consumed this Australia Day will come from one of Victoria’s 2,033 bottleshops4.
We have a lot of packaged liquor outlets in Victoria and their numbers are increasing
Victoria has more outlets than it ever has had before. The number of packaged liquor licences increased 49 per cent between 2001 and 2016. There has been a rapid expansion in the number of packaged liquor outlets owned by supermarket chains, and a dramatic increase in the number of ‘big box’ format stores (e.g. Dan Murphy’s, First Choice) in Victoria which have increased from three in 2001 to 68 in 20165.
What is the problem with having so many packaged liquor outlets?
Studies show that packaged liquor outlet density is associated with higher rates of assault, domestic violence, chronic disease and very heavy episodic drinking6.
Chain outlets contribute most significantly to trauma risk, with each additional chain outlet associated with a 35 per cent increase in intentional injuries and a 22 per cent increase in unintentional injuries in the local area7.
The increased availability and affordability of alcohol in the community and cheaper prices due to the buying power of these big retailers serves to fuel the cycle of harm.
What regulatory reform is needed in Victoria for packaged liquor outlets?
Most importantly we need to ensure that the liquor licence application process gives greater regard to the substantial health and social harm associated with alcohol, including harm to others than the drinker. We also need to shift the current position where the granting of a liquor licence is considered a right, to one where it’s considered a privilege with great responsibility. The current liquor licencing process is heavily weighted towards granting applications with only about one per cent of applications refused.
To achieve these in practice, we need regulatory reform that:
- Only enables a new liquor licence to be granted when the applicant satisfies harm and public interest tests by demonstrating how the licenced premise is in the public interest and will not contribute to the social and health harms within the area it is to be established.
- Requires consideration be given to the cumulative impact of existing licences in an area for all packaged liquor licence applications. This means that the licence application must be considered in the context of the number, density, mix, locations, trading hours, capacity or retail floor space, patron or customer numbers, and alcohol sales of existing licensed premises in the area for which the application is being made. In essence, a new application should not be approved if an area is already saturated with packaged liquor outlets.
- Gives local councils the ability to have an area declared an alcohol harm zone which restricts the establishment of new licence premises in areas already experiencing very harm rates of alcohol related harm.
These reforms will facilitate a more appropriate level of growth in packaged liquor outlets in Victoria, and will have a large impact in reducing harms that are associated with high outlet density.
There is an opportunity to make changes to our regulatory system now
The Royal Commission Into Family Violence (the Commission) acknowledged that greater attention should be paid to the relationship between alcohol supply and family violence in light of the evidence showing that alcohol misuse increases the severity and frequency of family violence.
Many of us working to prevent the harm from alcohol have been encouraged by the Victorian Government’s current review of the Liquor Control Reform Act 1998 (LCRA) in response to a recommendation by the Commission.
This review provides us with an opportunity to address the association between alcohol availability and family violence. The Victorian Government’s commitment to ending family violence will require reform of the LCRA to halt the increased availability of alcohol through packaged liquor outlets in Victoria.
Dr Bruce Bolam
Executive Manager, Programs Group
1VicHealth 2016, VicHealth Indicators Survey 2015 Selected findings, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, Melbourne.
2National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) 2009, Australian Guidelines To Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol, NHMRC, Canberra.
3Lloyd B, Matthews S, Livingston M, Jayasekara H 2011, Drinking cultures and social occasions: Alcohol harms in the context of major sporting events, Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, Fitzroy, Victoria.
4Euromonitor International, Passport: Alcoholic drinks in Australia 2012, Euromonitor: London.
5Livingston, M., Packaged liquor in Victoria - 2001 to 2016. In Press, Melbourne: La Trobe University, Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, Centre for Alcohol Policy Research: Melbourne.
6Livingston M, Laslett AM, Dietze P. Individual and community correlates of young people’s high-risk drinking in Victoria, Australia. Drug Alcohol Depend 2008;98:241–8; Livingston M. A longitudinal analysis of alcohol outlet density and assault. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 2008a;32:1074–9; Livingston M. A longitudinal analysis of alcohol outlet density and domestic violence. Addiction 2011;106:919–25; Livingston M. Alcohol outlet density and harm: comparing the impacts on violence and chronic harms. Drug Alcohol Rev 2011a;30:515–23.
7Morrison, C. and Smith K, Disaggregating relationships between off-premise alcohol outlets and trauma. 2015, FARE: Canberra.