EXPLAINED: The relationship between booze and violence

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As New South Wales looks to review it’s lock-out law policy, law lecturer and policy consultant Jarryd Bartle looks at the at the evidence on the connection between alcohol and violence - and what can be done about it.

Above video: Melbourne cup, alcohol and violence.

Are you a mean drunk?  Then it may be time to rethink the booze.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has flagged that her government will review Sydney’s controversial lock-out laws.

The licensing restrictions were placed on venues in the city after a spate of alcohol fuelled ‘coward punch’ attacks.

Around 73 per cent of all reported assaults in Australia involve the consumption of alcohol. This makes alcohol one of the single biggest risk factors for violence.

 Heavy drinking has also been shown to double the risk of family and domestic violence. The link is so strong we can predict spikes in domestic assaults depending on whether a sports game or theMelbourne Cup is on as these correlated with periods of binge drinking.

Alcohol Affects Decision-Making

Anyone who likes a drink knows alcohol dulls the brain.

What’s the science? Alcohol binds to receptors in the pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for complex behaviour and decision-making.

Alcohol decreases activity in the prefrontal cortex messing around with short-term memory, attention and impulse control. This is thought to play a role in causing intoxicated people to overreact to provocative situations and to limit the ability of some people to control violent impulses.

However, the effects of alcohol on the brain are only a small part of the story.

Some People Are More Susceptible

 Most people who consume alcohol do not become violent. Alcohol consumption alone has not been shown to spontaneously illicit aggressive behaviour.

Violent drunks are overwhelmingly male. One study looking at violence within licensed venues found that being male doubled the odds of involvement in drunken violence.

 Key risk factors for alcohol and male violence include a preoccupation with social status, competitiveness and displays of aggressive masculinity. Blaming violence on drunk men showing off may seem like a cliché, but it’s backed up by evidence.

Drinking behaviour also plays a role. People who binge drink or mix alcohol with illicit drugs are more likely to be violent.

Access and Venue Play a Role

Beyond individual risk factors, there is also the environment where most drinking takes place.

Sydney’s controversial lock-out laws have shown that if you limit the amount of time people spend drinking in licensed venues, you will see a decrease in alcohol-related violence.

However, not all licensed venues are created equal. Studies have shown that venues that heavily promote alcohol consumption and encourage a ‘rowdy’ male-dominated culture are more likely to suffer the brunt of alcohol fuelled violence than those who don’t.

Beyond licensed venues, there are links between liquor store density and crime. One study found that the number of liquor outlets was strongly correlated to the prevalence of intimate partner and family violence per area.

Getting Control

So, what if you are a mean drunk, or you have had issues with alcohol-fuelled violence in the past?

According to alcohol and drug expert Professor Nicole Lee from Curtin University, the best thing to do is to seek help.

“Aggression when drunk can indicate an underlying issue of anxiety or anger management,” said Professor Lee.

“Most people don't get aggressive when they drink.”

One solution for people that do become aggressive whilst drinking is relatively simple: don’t drink, or at-least, cut it down.

However, for many more intensive treatment would be beneficial.

“Evidence-based treatment programs such as cognitive behavioural therapy are very effective at dealing with issues of substance-related aggression,” said Professor Lee.

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