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It's time to take Melbourne's alcohol problem seriously

Toby Hall - Herald Sun
July 2015

Even the most parochial Australians tend to agree that when it comes to the nation's pre–eminent city for entertainment, it's Melbourne first and daylight second.

But our reputation – so heavily dependent on our thriving pub and bar culture – goes hand–in–hand with the consumption of alcohol, and with that comes a hidden cost.

Behind the façade of our cosmopolitan city, ambulance call–outs to drunk Melburnians have increased 146 per cent since 2003.

Across the state, alcohol–related hospital admissions are up 53 per cent over roughly the same time.

Talk to the staff at St Vincent's and they'll tell you alcohol is a far greater cause of illness, injury and harm than any illicit drug.

I defy anyone to walk around the city's nightlife precincts on a Saturday night and tell me Melbourne doesn't have a problem with public drunkenness and its associated ills?

For example, new figures from the Crime Statistics Agency have assaults at a five–year high on Swanston Street.

And yet despite the evidence, Victoria seems determined to ignore the problem. Witness last month's decision to lift the seven–year freeze on venues of up to 200 patrons applying to serve alcohol after 1am.

Walking through parts of Melbourne on a Saturday night actually reminds me of Sydney's King Cross before NSW brought in a 1.30am venue lockout and 3am last drinks, measures that have seen alcohol–fuelled violence plummet.

Our public hospital in Sydney's Darlinghurst – which has within its catchment the greatest concentration of licensed premises in Australia – has witnessed their dramatic impact.

Over the one–year prior to the laws' introduction in February 2014, the hospital saw 26 patients with serious head injuries admitted between the hours of 8pm–8am.

But in the year that followed, over the same 8pm–8am window, the hospital saw only 11 serious head injuries – more than a 50 per cent drop – and only one of those involved alcohol and came from the lockout area.

Before the lockout laws we were seeing so many patients with alcohol–related brain injuries we had to establish a special clinic to manage numbers.

Now it's been disbanded because the need has all but vanished.

And what do the independent experts say?

The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research judged the laws to have reduced assaults in Kings Cross by 32% and the CBD by 26%.

There was also no increase in assaults in adjacent suburbs or those within easy reach.

From what I've seen in Sydney, I'm convinced it's time for Melbourne to get serious about its alcohol problem and revisit lockout laws as part of its approach to reducing alcohol–related harm.

Victoria also needs to pick up NSW's state–wide ban on bottle shop sales after 10pm.

I know what some will say: "We trialled lockout laws in 2008 and they failed" or "Melbourne will lose its reputation as a 24 hour, global city".

Melbourne's experiment with lockout laws in 2008 failed because it gave some of the city's worst venues for alcohol–related violence an escape.

Twenty five per cent of licensed venues within Melbourne's lockout area were granted exemptions from the measures and 78 per cent of these were high risk.

And as for Melbourne's loss of global status? Does anyone think Los Angeles or San Francisco are retirement villages? These cities have international reputations for nightlife despite California's 2am last drinks.

Done properly, 1.30am lockouts and 3am last drinks won't curtail any reasonable enjoyment of alcohol on a night out, and will return balance to our city's drinking culture.

Melburnians like to think we're different and we don't need these sorts of measures.

As a proud Melburnian, I disagree.

I want more of our young people home safely at the end of a night rather than fighting for their lives in intensive care.

With Sydney's lockout laws a resounding success – and with Queensland poised to introduce similar – Melbourne is now following rather than leading.

For our sake, I hope that changes.