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Earlier pub closing times key to reducing alcohol-fuelled assaults

Earlier pub closing times have a large impact on curbing alcohol-fuelled violence, according to research my colleagues and I have published today in the international peer-reviewed journal Drug & Alcohol…

Earlier closing times for pubs and bars is the key to preventing alcohol-fuelled assaults. André Hofmeister/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Earlier pub closing times have a large impact on curbing alcohol-fuelled violence, according to research my colleagues and I have published today in the international peer-reviewed journal Drug & Alcohol Review.

Along with systematic reviews of the scientific literature, these findings suggest the New South Wales government’s new laws requiring most pubs, bars, and clubs in Sydney’s central business district to stop serving alcohol at 3am are likely to reduce assault rates.

The research published today shows the large positive effects of the March 2008 restriction in pub closing times in Newcastle’s central business district continue while “softer” measures (including lockouts) introduced in neighbouring Hamilton from 2010 have been ineffective.

Previous research showed the late-night assault rate in central Newcastle fell by a third in the 18 months to September 2009, without evidence of violence being displaced to the earlier hours of the evening or neighbouring areas. This latest study shows the effects have been sustained in the five years to March 2013.

A successful experiment

Due to frequent episodes of alcohol-related violence and other disorder in the central business district of Newcastle, the NSW Liquor Administration Board (since abolished) imposed restrictions on 14 venues in 2008. Pubs and clubs were required to close at 3:30am, and to implement a 1:30am lockout to prevent new patrons from entering the venue.

Lockouts, in which patrons can remain drinking but cannot enter new premises after a certain time, are unique to Australasia. They’ve only been studied a handful of times, and some of the research published in scientific journals has significant design limitations. Indeed, the most we can say about lockouts is that they’re not supported by scientific evidence.

What occurred in Hamilton — no significant reduction in the assault rate over five years — is consistent with this view of lockouts being ineffective. Clearly, earlier closing times or at least stopping alcohol sales earlier is the key to preventing assaults.

The late-night assault rate in Newcastle fell without evidence of violence being displaced. tony proudfoot/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Regrettably, there’s confusion among media commentators about the distinction between the cessation of alcohol sales and lockouts.

Confusing two measures

Last week for instance, public policy fellow at the University of Melbourne and former senior policy adviser to a Victorian Labor government, Nicholas Reece published an opinion piece in Fairfax newspapers in which he criticised NSW’s alcohol laws based on just such a misunderstanding.

Reece conflated lockouts, which now come into effect at 1:30am in Sydney’s central business district, with the cessation of alcohol sales, which now occurs at 3am, citing a study of lockouts in Ballarat (not available online).

That study was poorly designed and not published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. It shouldn’t be the basis of a news item, let alone public policy.

Reece argued that in the same way the supposed benefits of lockouts in Ballarat didn’t translate to Melbourne, the findings from Newcastle will not translate to Sydney.

Keeping perspective

But Reece’s op-ed obscures two important facts. First, Ballarat is a large town with a population of 95,000 people, while Newcastle is Australia’s sixth largest city, with more than half a million people. While Ballarat to Melbourne may be a stretch, it’s not unreasonable to expect that effects observed in Newcastle will generalise to other large metropolitan areas in Australia.

Second, the intervention in Newcastle produced large and persistent benefits and the research has been subject to robust peer review with findings that are consistent with a growing body of international literature.

Indeed, the Newcastle findings are comparable with those of a recent study of changes in closing times in Norway in the 2000s, the most comprehensive such research so far because many localities could be studied contemporaneously.

A large Norwegian study echoes the findings in Newcastle. Ruslan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

That study found that in eight cities where trading hours were extended, there was an average 20% increase in assaults per additional hour of trading. Conversely, in 15 cities where hours were restricted, there was an average 20% decrease in assaults per hour of restriction.

The short-term effect in Newcastle (22% per hour restricted) and the effect estimated for the following 3.5 years (21% per hour restricted) are remarkably similar to the Norwegian experience.

Giving credit where it’s due

In a media release late last week, the Australian Hotels Association cited Reece’s article in support of its position, again conflating cessation of sales with lockouts:

We’ve always been sceptical that blanket lockouts won’t work in a city like Sydney, and this week a former senior Victorian public servant involved with the failed Melbourne lockout confirmed that view.

Of course, there are things the New South Wales government could have done better. It makes no sense to exclude two areas close to the city with very high alcohol-related crime rates (Oxford St and Darling Harbour) from the restrictions, for instance, but credit should be given where it’s due.

The Sydney intervention is a step in the right direction, acknowledging the need to balance the interests of the alcohol industry with public health.

A leap forward

The Newcastle intervention has prevented between 3,000 and 4,000 assaults in the six years since it was put in place. Such large effects are rare in population health interventions.

It would be worthwhile costing these assaults in terms of emergency response, medical care, disability, foregone income, and lost productivity, and to assess the public’s willingness to continue bearing the cost of late-night trading.

In addition to redrawing the Sydney central business district boundary to include all assault hotspots, the New South Wales government would be wise to stop consumption (rather than just the purchase) of alcohol at 3am, or even 2am, as has been the case in California for many decades.

And other states considering legislation to help address the problem of late-night assault should clearly focus on earlier cessation of drinking rather than lockouts.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Good to see practical solutions having an effect on violence statistics.
    Be good to see a blanket 3am closure (and not just lockout) throughout the nation.

    1. Janeen Harris


      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      We also need to crack down on venues to follow responsible service of alcohol laws. Many venues keep selling to people no matter how drunk they are .

  2. John Pickard

    Eclectic naturalist

    GREAT STUFF! Thanks Kypros.

    But of course, the politicians won't let DATA get in the way of lobbying and the straight-out lies coming from the self-interest of the alcohol industry and venues.

    I'm now waiting to see how O'Farrell will squirm out of this. I'll bet it will the usual line of "Oh but the Newcastle solution" won't work here in Sydney, ..... Sure Barry, we believe you.

    And of course, the alcohol industry will tout its usual BS of "we need integrated approaches", "social responsibility", "increased police", "responsible drinking", and their latest which I really love: "there will be an increase in illicit drugs". Sure guys, we believe you as well.

    I wonder if Clover Moore has finally got the message that the incredible number of booze venues in Sydney is ridiculous, and is a proven abject social failure (except for the industry and owners of venues).

    1. Jonathan Wald


      In reply to John Pickard

      As someone who doesn't even drink that much, I'm really grateful for the increasing number of venues - especially the newer small wine bar venues which have been made possible through Clover Moore's changes in the licensing laws.

      I'm no social scientist, but I get the sense that it isn't the number of venues that is a problem - it's a particular group of venues in particular areas of town.

  3. Robin Bell

    Research Academic Public Health, at University of Newcastle

    Thanks for the article. It clears up several arguments used to justify ongoing drunken violence in the community for the sake of profits.

  4. Michael Gormly

    Editor at Superkern Design Pty Ltd

    Articles like this - and the anti-alcohol movement - do not convince me. They always ignore that violence in Kings Cross had dropped by about the same percentage as the Newcastle effect before the lockout regime. I live in Kings Cross and see a different reality. In late 2010 several large, successful new venues opened nearby, increasing the licenced capacity of the area by 3,000 people. Saturation point theory would predict a spike in violence but in fact it dropped as per trend according to the…

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    1. Kypros Kypri

      Professor, Public Health, Epidemiology & Prevention of Alcohol-related Injury and Disease at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Michael Gormly

      Dear Michael

      Thank you for your comment.

      In my article I do not make reference to violence rates in Kings Cross. A problem with comparing changes in violence rates between disparate places as you do in your comment is that there are all sorts of service delivery variables (discussed in our earlier, longer paper that may confound associations.

      Police activity including staffing levels, operations, and crime coding…

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    2. Michael Gormly

      Editor at Superkern Design Pty Ltd

      In reply to Kypros Kypri

      Kypros, I love your Cross memories, especially the bit about your Valiant being stolen seven times! I guess I'm coming from a place where Newcastle is repeatedly held up as a model for the Cross but, as you say, there are many differences - a big one being that people excluded from the Cross can just go to other precincts which are less well managed. My point about the decreasing violence here illustrates that violence can and has been significantly reduced without killing this global city's 24-hour…

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  5. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    When I first moved to Melbourne in 1976, the only place you could get a beer after midnight was at the bar at the Tullamarine airport.

    This simple fact illustrates the massive changes to our drinking laws that have occurred gradually over the last 30 years. Perhaps it is about time to go back in time a little.

    And yes we did venture out to the airport and yes we got whacked.

    Gerard Dean

  6. Margo Saunders

    Public Health Policy Researcher

    I haven't seen any of this recently, but there has been some interest in the role of other factors, such as the physical design & layout of drinking venues and the whether there are large groups of 'strangers' in the venues. As with other public health problems, it can be useful to look at where the problem does not exist and pick apart those characteristics. Having lived for many years in several locations in the UK, for example, I never saw alcohol-related violence at 'locals'. Because these were…

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  7. Michael Grant


    The research of the Professor and his colleagues demonstrates to me the validity of my own conclusions drawn on my prior experience of 24 years as a police officer. The longer the period in which alcohol is supplied to drinkers, the greater will be the incidence of serious assaults, sexual and non-sexual, and the greater will be the incidence of unintended self harm to the drinkers. Governments must face this reality - and ignore the blandishments of the alcohol lobby and the accompanying arguments about loss of jobs, effect on tourism etc etc. All BS from a vested interest.