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Alcohol and violence: a complex issue in search of leadership

The start of 2014 has seen a tragic, but sadly predictable discussion around Australia about lives lost or hanging in the balance due to violence. All of the high-profile cases involved alcohol. These…

Daniel Christie is the latest young person to have lost his life to senseless, alcohol-related violence, adding to public pressure for nationwide action. AAP

The start of 2014 has seen a tragic, but sadly predictable discussion around Australia about lives lost or hanging in the balance due to violence. All of the high-profile cases involved alcohol. These are the tip of a horrifying iceberg.

Family violence, intimate partner violence, child abuse, gang violence, sexual assault, bullying and many other forms of violence erode our community day by day and destroy lives. When a young man is brain-damaged in a bar fight, his loved ones often lose a part, if not most, of their lives to a senseless act.

A self-perpetuating cycle of violence

Many offenders' lives and those of their families are also ruined. Children who survive family or domestic violence are three times more likely to become perpetrators and twice as likely to become victims. Boys who are abused physically by their fathers, who normally do so when drunk, are twice as likely to be perpetrators of bar-room violence as adults. They often destroy their lives as well as others before they even really begin.

By not acting on this cycle of violence in all its manifestations, not just alcohol-related, we are perpetuating and worsening the situation.

The recent public debate, including comments by prime minister Tony Abbott and opposition leader Bill Shorten, has demonstrated the level of public pressure on Australian leaders to act on this problem. Our society is clearly no longer willing to pay the huge financial costs and devastating emotional costs associated with violence.

Harsher responses feel desirable. They give us a sense of justice when such senseless tragedy makes us as individuals and as a society feel powerless. But tough penalties seldom affect people’s actions in the heat of the moment, especially when alcohol or other drugs are involved.

Public rallies, such as November’s protest in Sydney at the sentence for the attacker who killed Thomas Kelly, push for tougher penalties at the risk of neglecting other, more effective ways to prevent violence. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Alcohol makes violence more likely

Violence begets violence; alcohol makes it so much worse.

The research literature from around the world is clear: when you grow up in a setting where violence is common or acceptable, you are far more likely to become a perpetrator, a victim, or both. Violence doesn’t comply with the labels we impose. When you are a victim or observer of violence as a child your world will be tainted, and for many this means perpetuating the cycle.

Yet we also know that some people do not repeat this cycle. Research is continuing to identify the protective factors at play. The life-course research field has been identifying many factors we can and should be acting upon.

This is important work, but it is also far, far more effective and preferable to prevent violence from occurring, rather than trying to fix victims.

Alcohol and other drug use has been found in every study to influence the likelihood of people experiencing violence. By definition, these drugs alter our state of mind. They play a role in people acting on impulse, indulging impulses they would not normally entertain.

This is because the substance they are using reduces people’s inhibition. It helps them not to think of the consequences of their actions, makes them focus entirely on the moment or simply increases their adrenaline. But drug use (the most common being alcohol) is not a defence for violence – and never should be.

Proven answers exist

While there are many causes and effective solutions to violence, acting on alcohol is the only one that can have an immediate impact.

There are effective solutions at hand and an international framework ready to adopt. The large body of work in this area clearly shows what works, and what doesn’t.

Closing pubs earlier has been found to consistently reduce assaults and emergency department attendances. Strict enforcement of existing licensing laws has also been found to be a key element in any successful management of alcohol-related violence. Education campaigns and vague references to personal responsibility have been found ineffective at best and, in some cases, have even been associated with an increase in harm.

The Global Campaign for Violence Prevention, co-ordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO), has identified key goals towards which efforts can be directed. These include: identifying violence prevention as a health issue and building foundations for ongoing violence-prevention efforts.

The strategy promotes the implementation of evidence-informed programs that focus on: parenting, life skills, social norms, alcohol, the risks of firearm-related deaths and injuries, and services for victims.

National strategy is needed

The costs of violence in Australia run to many billions of dollars. Our research estimate is that since 2003-04 Australia has committed more than $5.8 billion to educational, social and community programs in which tackling violence in one form or another is a significant element.

The costs of violence in the community indicate a poor return on that investment of public funds. The human costs are unfathomable and unacceptable.

The global action plan calls specifically for the development of national plans. Measures to reduce violence currently sit in many different silos and often fall under different jurisdictions. Many excellent strategies do exist to reduce specific types of violence, which would ideally work with the broader strategy.

There is no clear voice about the links between different types of violence and the risk and protective factors that contribute to different types of violence. Most importantly, there is a lack of clarity about which interventions can work for communities, specific populations, offenders and victims.

A commitment by Australia to a whole-of-government National Strategy to Prevent and Reduce Violence (NPRV) shows that we want to seriously and strategically tackle the problem. The plan must cover the cultural, educational, geographic, societal, community and public safety aspects of a significant public health and policy issue.

Australia has successfully and sustainably reduced traffic deaths through compulsory seat-belt and drink-driving legislation, the effects of smoking by packaging controls and weapons-related deaths through gun controls. The current wave of violence - whether it involves alcohol, is domestic in nature, sport-related, involves indigenous communities or any other form of violence - demands a national strategy to change our attitude to violence, its perpetrators and victims.

It will take leadership and perseverance to achieve this positive legacy for future generations.


This article was co-authored by former Queensland police superintendent Dan Keating.