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From frontline of drunken war zone

Gordian Fulde - Townsville Bulletin
February 2016

Queensland, like the rest of Australia, is soaked with alcohol.

The data doesn’t lie.

35,000 Queenslanders hospitalised each year from alcohol-related illnesses and injuries; more than 1000 deaths.

Queenslanders drink more alcohol on a daily basis than the national average.

Don’t believe the statistics? Then take a walk through Fortitude Valley in Brisbane or Flinders Street in Townsville late on a Friday or Saturday night and tell me what you see?

Intoxicated and bullet-proof young people drinking themselves into oblivion; alcohol-sparked brawls and risky behaviour; the emergency departments of nearby hospitals crammed to the gills with the most horrific related injuries.

Every Friday and Saturday night.

This is not the measure of a civilised society.

Two years ago, much of what we see at peak periods in Queensland’s nightclub precincts was echoed in Sydney’s Kings Cross and nearby CBD.

As the Director of Emergency at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney for more than three decades, I’ve seen it all. St Vincent’s has within its catchment the largest concentration of licensed premises in Australia.

But the alcohol-fuelled fallout of an average Friday or Saturday night in the Cross a few years ago was something altogether different.

It was a war zone.

The head injuries and broken limbs as a result of alcohol-related bashings, falls and accidents were seemingly never ending.

Tragically, this behaviour climaxed with the preventable deaths of two young men – Thomas Kelly and Daniel Christie – both victims of alcohol-fuelled coward’s punches.

But Thomas and Daniel were the most high profile cases; there have sadly been other deaths as well as irreversible injuries.

Queensland has had its share of recent alcohol-related tragedies: Cole Miller, Trevor Duroux, and Melissa Abdoo, who remains in Townsville Hospital.

Now it stands on the threshold of introducing far-reaching reforms to address what is clearly a national problem.

But despite the majority of Queenslanders supporting such measures, some uncertainty about how the laws will work and their impact remains.

Let me tell you what I’ve seen in Sydney.

In February 2014, the NSW Government introduced measures similar to those planned for Queensland, including a 1.30am lockout and 3am last drinks in Sydney’s CBD and Kings Cross, and banning the service of shots after midnight. They also required bottle shops across NSW to close by 10pm.

The results have been absolutely extraordinary.

Assaults causing actual bodily harm in the area have plummeted by 50.3 per cent; sexual assaults have declined by 20.8 per cent.

Across the state, assaults have dropped by 9 per cent.

In the year following the introduction of the liquor laws, my emergency department experienced a 25% drop in seriously injured patients during the busiest 6pm Friday to 6am Sunday period.

While of course we still see alcohol-related injuries, their frequency and severity has declined, with only three admissions to the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit from the precinct over two years.

Some say the measures have adversely affected local business.

Yes, things have changed. But thank heavens they did; balance needed to be restored.

Despite what you hear, Kings Cross is not a ghost town. More than 1 million patrons pass through the suburb’s nightclubs and bars every year – and that’s excluding restaurants and small bars.

As occurred in Newcastle when it brought in similar laws in 2008, we’re already seeing businesses adapt.

There has been a 13% increase in the number of liquor licences in CBD/Kings Cross precincts since 2012.

This mirrors Newcastle which saw licensed premises more than double after its trading hours were reduced, mostly in new restaurants and smaller bars, while night-time presentations at the city's emergency departments dropped 26 per cent.

Queensland – and Townsville – has nothing to lose but everything to gain by taking extra steps to address alcohol-related violence.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes.