Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
The holiday season is upon us once more. It’s that time of year when everything begins to wind down and people come together with their relatives and friends to celebrate. And of course, with alcohol being the main legal drug in this country, copious amounts of it are consumed.
A new study released last week by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) shows that the Christmas and New Year period is one of the worst times of year for risky alcohol use and hand-in-hand with that comes a significant spike in assaults.
The BOCSAR report focuses on the impact alcohol consumption has on the criminal justice system. And to do this, BOCSAR senior research officer Neil Donnelly compared alcohol-related emergency department presentations data with police assault statistics.
Said to account for the data from 73 to 76 percent of NSW public hospitals, the emergency department statistics for alcohol problems was used as it reflects risky alcohol consumption levels in the broader community. It included presentations for acute intoxication, chronic dependence and withdrawal.
While the police figures, which were taken from NSW Computerised Operational Policing System (COPS), related to persons of interest proceeded against for assault, meaning if police had issued a court attendance notice, a youth justice conference, a caution or an infringement notice.
More booze equals more violence
The study compared the data over a 156 month period between January 2004 and December 2016.
While the correlation between risky alcohol use and violence it shows is well-known, what’s not so generally understood is that if emerging drinking trends amongst younger people continue, levels of alcohol-related assaults are set to drop.
Assault data falls into three categories: non-domestic violence, domestic violence and police assault. The smaller amount of people who were proceeded against for allegedly assaulting a police officer was excluded from the study, as it’s strongly influenced by policing policy.
Amongst males between the ages of 25 and 64, 10 additional alcohol-related emergency presentations in a month was associated with an additional 5.4 people police proceeded against for assault that same month.
And despite a brief decline between 2009 and 2012, the levels of alcohol-related emergency presentations and assault proceedings for this age group has been increasing since 2004.
In regard to women between 25 and 64, there’s been a rise over that period as well. An increase of 10 additional alcohol-related emergency presentations correlated with a rise of 2.4 people being proceeded against for assault that month and a 1.8 person rise the following month.
For men between the ages of 18 and 24 years of age, there was a steady increase in both emergency presentations and assault proceedings between 2004 and 2009, after which there was a large decline in people proceeded against for assault and a smaller drop in people fronting up at hospitals due to alcohol.
A rise of 10 presentations in this age group corresponded with a 5.9 increase in people proceeded against during the initial month and 8.2 the next month. For women of this age, the rates have plateaued since 2007. Ten additional presentations led to an extra 1.5 assault proceedings.
Times are changing
An additional 10 alcohol-related presentations for males between 13 and 17 led to an additional 4.1 people proceeded against for assault during that same month, and 4.5 people two months later. But, the rates of emergency presentations and assault proceedings have been declining since 2009.
For women between the ages of 13 and 17, alcohol-related emergency presentations have been declining since 2009, while those proceeded against for assault has been steadily dropping since 2011.
Indeed, studies suggest that over recent years there’s been a drop in risky alcohol use amongst teenagers and young adults. The National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016 found that the rate of 12 to 17 year olds that are abstaining from drinking is up from 72 percent in 2013 to 82 percent in 2016.
In addition the number of 18 to 24 year olds who consumed eleven or more standard drinks a month declined from close to a quarter in 2010 to around 15 percent in 2016. This decline was not as large for 25 to 29 years olds and there was no decline amongst older people.
The 2014 Australian Secondary Students Alcohol and Drug survey revealed that the number of 12 to 15 years olds having consumed alcohol over the last week had dropped from 29 percent in 2002 to around 11 percent in 2014. And for 16 and 17 years olds this had dropped from 48 percent in 2002 to around 33 percent in 2014.
The BOCSAR report outlines that there’s also been a decrease in the number of younger people proceeded against by police for assault in this state.
In 2010, there were 3,861 18 to 24 year olds proceeded against for non-domestic violence in NSW, compared with 2,706 in 2016. And amongst 13 to 17 year olds, this had dropped from 3,074 in 2008 to 1,678 in 2016.
The burden on the system
BOCSAR director Dr Don Weatherburn explained in a media release that while the relationship between alcohol and crime is well understood, no study had specifically focused upon the link between risky consumption of alcohol and arrests.
Over the period 2003-04 and 2016-17, the number of individuals brought before the NSW courts for an “act intended to cause injury” – most of which are assaults – has increased by 38 percent. And this category of offence now accounts for the majority of people being sent to prison in NSW.
So, the report posits that emergency department data on alcohol-related presentations could be used to provide insight into future demands for court and prison resources, as well as the need for increased investment in violence reduction programs.
The failing war on drugs
It should be noted that the reduction in drinking amongst young people in Australia is not due to any prohibitions. In fact, the falling alcohol consumption rates amongst teenagers and young adults is consistent with trends in countries with similar drinking cultures.
Experts are uncertain as to why this global drop in alcohol consumption is occurring. But, one thing is for sure, it’s not due to it being outlawed. Alcohol is legal in the overwhelming majority of countries, and while its use is dropping, the use of illicit substances has risen since they’ve been banned.
The Global Commission on Drugs reported that over a ten year period there was a 30 percent global increase in opioid use, while cocaine use went up by 27 percent and use in recreational cannabis rose by 8.5 percent.
So, it’s seems reasonable to presume that recent calls to decriminalise personal drug use and possession would result in a more open approach to drugs in the community, which might see a drop in their use just as more young people are turning away from alcohol.