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Queensland should embrace lockout and early closure laws to reduce alcohol-fuelled violence

Dr Tony Grabs - The Courier Mail
April 2015

It gives me great encouragement to hear of the State Government's plans to introduce 1am lockout laws and 3am last drinks across Queensland.

Because as the Director of Trauma at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney – which has as its catchment zone the CBD, Kings Cross and Oxford St, an area with the greatest concentration of licensed premises in Australia – I know first-hand how such laws save lives.

Prior to the introduction of similar measures in Sydney in February 2014, Friday and Saturday nights in our emergency department were nothing short of chaos.

Alcohol-fuelled chaos.

On these nights in particular, inner-city Sydney's "party precinct" was flooded with high numbers of over-intoxicated people, rolling from one bar to the next, with few reasonable checks on their drinking behaviour.

Ask the residents, the police and the ambulance officers. Ask our hospital's staff – the result was mayhem.

Alcohol made the mostly young patrons feel bullet proof.

But in reality they were increasingly vulnerable to displays of alcohol-charged rage and injury.

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 in Kings Cross.

But Thomas and Daniel were only the most high-profile cases, there were other deaths and many others who sustained irreversible injuries.

Indeed, over a one-year period before the lockout laws, St Vincent's saw 26 patients with serious head injuries admitted to the hospital between the hours of 8pm to 8am.

Something had to be done.

Thankfully, our state's leaders – buoyed by strong public support – introduced 1.30am lockout laws and 3am closures along with a host of other important measures, such as requiring bottle shops across NSW to close by 10pm.

The effect has been nothing short of remarkable. In the year since the lockout laws, over the same 8pm-8am window, we've only seen 11 serious head injuries at the hospital. That's more than a 50 per cent drop.

And only one of those was related to alcohol and stemmed from the area covered by the lockout.

On New Year's Eve – a night when the hospital's emergency department is usually overwhelmed with alcohol-related injuries – our staff spoke of lower levels of intoxication and violence, with not a single person admitted to intensive care.

The evidence from similar laws in Newcastle is clear: if you shut pubs and clubs two hours earlier, you experience a 30 to 40 per cent drop in assaults reported to police and Emergency Department presentations.

That's what we're starting to see in Sydney and it can be Queensland's experience as well.

We're also confident Sydney is not experiencing displacement of alcohol-related violence to other parts of the city not covered by the lockout laws. In speaking to my surgical peers at our neighbouring hospitals, it seems apparent that we haven't heard about any increase in the number of patients presenting or being admitted because of alcohol-related harm elsewhere. We're hopeful that the lockout laws have not only changed the landscape in the inner city, but also started to perhaps get people thinking differently about some of their drinking habits throughout Greater Sydney.

There's no two ways about it, when you reduce the availability of alcohol in a community, you can reduce the amount of harms caused.

What is impressive about the Sydney lockout laws is that they address both the trading hours of licensed premises as well as off-license retailers. In light of the success of the Sydney CBD's experience, it might be timely for the people of NSW as a whole to consider rolling out laws that reduce alcohol trading hours more broadly. That is, empowering other communities in Sydney and regional and rural NSW to assess their specific situations and make an informed decision about what kind of impacts limiting the accessibility to alcohol might have on their communities.

For the vast majority of us, Sydney's entertainment district is a much more enjoyable place as a result of these laws. If we can introduce such reductions in harms to the broader community, then this is something we should investigate doing as a priority. I cannot imagine many other examples where we have seen such comparatively small adjustments to legislation make such a huge difference to the wellbeing of that community. And more young men and women are getting home in one piece at the end of a night rather than fighting for their lives in intensive care.

I wholeheartedly encourage Queenslanders to embrace these reforms – which will be state wide and also include banning the sale of shots and other high alcohol content drinks after midnight. While still enabling everyone to have a good time, they will transform your cities and keep your young people safe.