HEAVY LOAD: How to better understand Australia's youth drinking culture

June 19, 2017 The Noffs Team Comments

It's a well known fact that the practice of "pre-loading" amongst young people is a huge contributing factor to alcohol-fuelled violence.

What is pre-loading?

It's basically getting drunk before you leave the house to go out for the evening. And it is so common that, for many Australian young people, it is synonymous with going out.

There is limited information available on pre-loading in Australia, but government research suggests it’s becoming more and more common, with the high price of alcohol in licensed venues being the primary reason Australia’s young people have so readily taken to the concept. The price difference between purchasing drinks in pubs and clubs and purchasing drinks from bottle shops has greatly influenced the rise of pre-loading in Australia. Interviewees in a recent government survey1 stated that they pre-load quite simply because it is “cheaper” than purchasing drinks at licensed venues ‒ especially for alcoholic-energy drinks, wine and alcopops.

Statistics showing the effect alcohol price has on pre-loading

Statistics showing the effect alcohol price has on pre-loading2

Pre-loading (or extreme binge drinking, which is what it equates to) puts young people at greater risk of alcohol induced injury and accidents. While alcohol price is a primary factor ‒ if not the primary factor ‒ influencing pre-loading in Australia, there are other reasons young people take to drinking at home before heading out. A New South Wales government report on strategies to reduce alcohol abuse among young people examines the causes of pre-loading. Although alcohol price is the main concern, social factors like gaining confidence and interaction with friends also play a part in why young people pre-load before a night out. According to the report, one young person stated that pre-loading “was a confidence thing,” while another said “it is also the social aspect. You can talk more when you are at home.

Pre-loading statistics from the NSW government report

Pre-loading statistics from the NSW government report3

The reasons behind pre-loading may seem harmless ‒ saving money on drinks and socialising more doesn’t sound like such a bad thing ‒ but the fact remains that pre-loading presents a very real danger to the community. People are pre-loading large amounts of alcohol; some as many as twenty-five standard drinks, and greatly increasing their risk of injury. Australia’s largest study into alcohol-related harm found that pre-loading was a major contributing factor to nightlife violence. It also found that people who drink six or more drinks before going out were twice as likely to experience violence than those who don’t.

A whopping three-quarters of eighteen to twenty-four year-olds in Victoria say they pre-load before going out at night. Studies in the UK and Switzerland have also documented the negative effects of the trend, including the discovery in Liverpool that pre-loaders were 2.5 times more likely to be involved in fights. Evidence also suggests that pre-loading encourages a higher consumption of alcohol, and that the rise in pre-loading popularity may be due to strict alcohol laws on top of alcohol costs and social factors.

STRATEGIES TO REDUCE ALCOHOL-RELATED HARM

It is estimated that if we could eliminate the practice of pre-loading, we would see a huge reduction in alcohol-related violence.

Strategies to deal with pre-loading vary. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) have both recently researched global strategies and success rates in reducing alcohol-related harm. Both studies found that restricting trading hours and the enforcement of the Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) presented high levels of success, whereas education and warning labels had little to no impact.

A UK Health Select Committee report reiterates that alcohol price is the primary factor in alcohol-related crime and disorder. The price gap between purchasing drinks at licensed premises and purchasing drinks at “off-licenses” (bottle shops and supermarkets) is substantial; encouraging young people to pre-load before a night out.

A UK parliament graph showing the vast difference in prices between beer sold at licensed venues and bottle shops/supermarkets4

The committee proposed various solutions, such as introducing minimum pricing and (eventually) increasing duty rates. Their aim is to implement multiple solutions that will reduce the consumption of cheap alcohol (the type bought specifically for “binging”). There has been varying success with different measures already implemented in the UK. Taxation and pricing, restricting availability, limiting the density of outlets and the introduction of designated public place orders (which allow the council to ban drinking in specific public places) have all had a high impact, whereas education campaigns and voluntary advertising restrictions have had very little.

The committee also noted that better health data collection was key to the reduction of alcohol-related crime. A reporting system is now in place with the South Central Ambulance Service, which enables PCTs (Patent Cooperation Treaties) to identify gaps in provision and patient needs. As the report states:

“This system led to the change of licence conditions for a club where many alcohol related assaults had occurred, leading to a reduction in emergency responses by 90% in the following 12 months.” 5


In order to reduce alcohol-related violence in problem or outlet dense areas in Australia, some jurisdictions have implemented “lockouts”, wherein patrons are refused entry after a certain time. The aim is to reduce the amount of migration between licenced premises. In 2004 Ballarat implemented the Operation Link: Be Safe Late Program (OLBSL), which involved a three step program: lockout, increased lighting and extra police. Due to the latter two measures, changes in alcohol-related violence cannot be attributed solely to lockouts, but results remain compelling:

“Assaults in licensed premises decreased by 47.5% and there was a reduction in assaults in public places by 33.3% following the introduction of the lockout.” 6


In NSW, Sydney offers a free bus service from Kings Cross to the CBD after 1am on Fridays and Saturdays, and Newcastle has had success reducing alcohol-related crimes by restricting trading hours. The Police Association of NSW reports:

“Since the introduction of the Newcastle restrictions, as well as the 37% reduction in the number of night-time non-domestic assaults, there has been a 50% reduction in the number of night-time street offences and a 26% reduction in the number of night-time assault related injury emergency department presentations at lower Hunter hospitals.” 7


The NSW government has also implemented a new statewide alcohol law that prohibits the sale of takeaway alcohol after 10pm, and implemented new precinct laws for certain areas (Kings Cross to Cockle Bay and parts of Surry Hills and Darlinghurst to The Rocks). The new laws include lockouts, 3am “last drinks” at licensed premises, temporary bans for troublemakers (48 hours), a two year freeze on liquor license approvals for new and existing licenses, revoking of competency cards or disqualifications for bar staff breaching RSA requirements, and licensee fines up to $11,000 and/or twelve months prison for failure to comply with the new laws.

In the Northern Territory Tennant Creek has restricted hotel opening hours and takeaway alcohol sales. In doing so they have seen reductions in both alcohol consumption and alcohol-related crime. Other positive outcomes the measures have achieved include a decrease in police arrests and hospital and women’s refuge admissions.

SO HOW DO WE PREVENT PRE-LOADING?

The influence of pre-loading in alcohol-related violence and injury is staggering.

Why is this not the centrepiece of Australian alcohol policy?

Current actions focus on restricting access to alcohol through reduced trading hours and density of bottle shops. These have had a positive impact and I think they’re an important step to take now in order to keep our streets safe. But are they the best long term solution?

The two major factors research has found that influence pre-loading behaviour are social and economic. That is, people use “pre-drinks” as a chance to socialise, and they drink heavily before going out to reduce the overall cost of a night out.

I don’t have any concrete solutions, but I’d like to throw a couple of ideas out there for consideration.

THE LEARNER DRINKERS

The first is that we look at the way that other countries introduce drinking to young people. In Germany, they have three drinking ages ‒ similar to the way we have three driving ages. Whereas Australian young people are more or less socialised into the practice of pre-loading (because they have nowhere else to go except parks or friends’ houses when they’re under age), kids in Germany learn how to drink amongst their families in a much milder fashion, from the age of fourteen. They are then allowed to consume beer or wine without adult supervision in licensed premises from the age of sixteen.

Could the way we introduce our young people to alcohol be a factor in the violent culture that plagues alcohol consumption in this country?

The latest study done by Prof. Richard Mattick at NDARC suggests that this European way of doing things doesn't translate in Australia's drinking culture but he also doesn't discount it altogether. In fact Prof. Mattick and I have been considering an experiment around this idea but more on that another time.

SO CRAZY IT JUST MIGHT WORK …

The second is that, counter intuitively, instead of increasing the cost of bottle shop liquor to reduce consumption (a tactic that will surely result in more dangerous consumption at the same level, as making alcohol more expensive doesn’t magically make people want to get less drunk) we could work with the hospitality industry to reduce the cost of buying drinks at licensed venues. This could involve licensing law changes to reduce costs to bar owners or government subsidies (or reduced taxes) for purchases of beer and wine before midnight.

Conventional wisdom says that where we have a problem with excess consumption we should increase the cost. For example, if people are trying to save money by drinking at home before hitting the clubs, why not just make it as expensive to drink at home as it is in the club? If you take this approach to its extreme, you risk creating a black market and making patterns of consumption more dangerous and risky, rather than reducing the level of consumption.

This is the same pattern we see over and over again with modern drug policy in Australia: when we try to reduce consumption through punitive measures, we only increase the risks ‒ especially for young people.

Both of the concepts suggested above seek to de-normalise the practice of drinking aggressively at private residences and normalise the practice of leaving the house to have a drink and socialise with friends.

It seems to me that the more alcohol consumption we can have in licensed venues, the better the outcomes will be for young people and the hospitality industry.

Again, it's not ideal but it is more realistic.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Matt Noffs

REFERENCES


1. Chapter 1: Alcohol in Australia by Australian National Preventive Health Agency
2. Pre-loading: WDR perspective on the practice of pre-loading by Wilson Drinks Report
3. Strategies to reduce alcohol abuse among young people in New South Wales / Standing Committee on Social Issues. [Sydney, N.S.W.] : the Committee, 2013. – xii, 148 p. ; 30 cm. (Report ; no. 48)
4. Alcohol policy by Philip Ward
5. 5 NHS policies to address alcohol related problems via www.parliament.uk
6. THE IMPACT OF A LOCKOUT POLICY ON LEVELS OF ALCOHOL-RELATED INCIDENTS IN AND AROUND LICENSED PREMISES by Palk, Gavan R. and Davey, Jeremy D. and Freeman, James E. (2007) Policing and preventing alcohol-related violence in and around licensed premises. In Proceedings 14th International Police Executive Symposium, Dubai.
7. POLICE ASSOCIATION OF NSW. Submission to the Review of the Liquor Act 2007 and the Gaming and Liquor Administration Act 2007 via Last Drinks Campaign. Website: http://lastdrinks.org.au/

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