In a series of recent papers, our research team has documented the impact of community interventions at reducing alcohol-related harm in the Geelong region in Victoria. What we found was that despite the best of intentions, none of the interventions reduced emergency department attendances and one was associated with an increase.
Geelong has a long and proud tradition of trying to address alcohol-related harms in a collaborative and creative manner. Council, police, licensees and Deakin University researchers have worked together to reduce these harms in the community while ensuring young people have an enjoyable social life.
Geelong was one of the first cities in the world to implement a liquor accord. And, between 2006 and 2009, it trialled a number of innovative approaches based on cooperation. Current interventions include a taxi rank and a closed circuit television (CCTV) network that now operates in conjunction with a radio program that connects police to security staff in licensed venues, camera operators and fast-food venues. Identity scanners were also installed in every late night (open after 1am) licensed premises in the city.
A new initiative
In June 2008, with no involvement from the liquor accord or local community safety committee, the “Just Think” campaign was launched by the local tabloid newspaper, the Geelong Advertiser. Funded by the alcohol industry social aspect/public relations organisation (SAPRO) DrinkWise, the campaign used football stars to endorse this message: “We’re not saying don’t drink, we’re saying just think.”
The campaign featured pictures of battered victims alongside football stars. These were sporadically implanted into the news cycle. The Just Think campaign was very popular with politicians, the media and many community stakeholders. It was adopted by the AFL and recommended by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
It’s important to note that campaigns like this one have been a favoured vehicle for the tobacco, gambling and alcohol industries in the past; they have a high profile but don’t reduce consumption or profits.
Our research project evaluated the impact of all the measures (individually and collectively) trying to tackle alcohol-related problems around licensed venues in Geelong. The findings published in the Drug and Alcohol Review and The Open Criminology Journal demonstrated that community interventions in Geelong failed to have an impact on injury presentations to local hospitals or assaults reported to police through to mid-2009.
We found the radio network, identity scanners and CCTV were useful in the detection and solving of crimes. But the Just Think campaign was associated with significant increases in both assaults and injury presentations at the Geelong hospital emergency department. The increases occurred at the same time as the campaign.
The association doesn’t necessarily mean that the Just Think caused the increase in assaults but there are plausible reasons for why it may have.
Violence and the campaign
The Just Think campaign sensationalised alcohol-fuelled violence by putting photos of bloodied victims on the front page of newspapers, and labelling incidents with a Just Think badge if they may have involved alcohol. But the program provided no practical strategies to avoid aggression or defuse potentially violent situations.
Successful campaigns in violence prevention need to give practical strategies; over 30 years of research tells us weak awareness campaigns are popular but ineffective.
In the absence of any practical strategies, Just Think only raised awareness of violence. This may have produced increased apprehension about entering dangerous environments and increased readiness to resort to violence to avert retaliation. These are only potential mechanisms, but in the face of the data, they are plausible.
The increased rates of emergency attendances and assaults were disappointing news for the Geelong community, but the much greater concern is the subsequent failure to report our findings about Just Think.
An unhealthy coalition?
A recent Geelong Advertiser article reported our research findings on assaults, but failed to mention the contribution of Just Think to the problem. Nor did the article report the money (an undisclosed amount) that the Geelong Advertiser received from DrinkWise.
Instead, the article noted, “The study said police and council initiatives implemented between 1991 and 2009 failed to reduce drunken assaults.” This omitted our findings regarding Just Think and implied the council and police had failed, as had the local licensees working with them.
The good news is that the implementation of more innovative and collaborative interventions may finally have had an impact on alcohol-related problems, which have now levelled off. But, this experience illustrates how unhealthy coalitions can form to advance commercial interests over the public good.
The public and government clearly need independent advice on what strategies are effective for combating social harms.