Alcohol the major player in tragic king hit deaths

Dr Jennifer Pilgrim

Jennifer Pilgrim

by Jennifer Pilgirm

The tragic death of Thomas Kelly, fatally king hit in Sydney’s Kings Cross last year, brought to the forefront the devastating consequences of alcohol-fuelled violence in Australia.

Kieran Loveridge received a non-parole period of four years for Thomas’ murder, sparking outrage from his parents, victim groups and the wider community. Loveridge, who was on conditional liberty at the time of the offence, had assaulted four other strangers that same night.

With NSW set to introduce a new offence of unlawful assault causing death, carrying a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail, momentum is gaining for other Australian states to follow suit. WA and the NT already have the ‘one-punch’ law, with penalties of up to 16 years.

Unfortunately, Thomas’ case was one of countless alcohol-fuelled single-punch deaths, not to mention the numerous individuals who survive an assault but end up with permanent physical and mental disabilities.

With 90 deaths attributed to single-punch assaults around Australia since 2000, too many young lives are being cut short by these senseless acts of violence. Alarmingly, this figure is likely to be an underestimation of the true number of single-punch deaths and does not include the numerous other types of assaults involving multiple hits or the use of weapons.

Despite common belief that these late-night assaults involve the use of drugs and alcohol, a study to be published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence this month strongly suggests that it is alcohol alone to blame in the overwhelming majority of single-punch fatalities. And while public perception of drinking and violence generally arouses the image of the aggressive drunken offender, it is also clear that alcohol intoxication also substantially increases the risk of being a victim of a violent attack.

Few would be surprised that alcohol is regarded as the biggest contributor to substance-related violent fatalities. As total volume alcohol sales increase, so do the rate of fatal assaults. This means hundreds of facial repairs, thousands of brain injuries, and billions of dollars in healthcare costs to Australians.

So what is the answer to curb this increasing social and financial burden on society? Policy makers have consistently debated solutions such as reducing licensed venue trading hours, greater penalties for problem drinkers, increased taxes on alcoholic beverages, improved education campaigns, or limiting advertising and marketing strategies that encourage alcohol consumption, particularly to young people.

However research shows that many young Australians go out with the intention to get drunk. So strategies aiming to counteract this may realistically not be as effective as approaches to manage the drinking environment, in order to reduce harm.

Binge drinking on a weekly basis is the norm in this country. The latest figures from the Australian National Council on Drugs reveal that binge drinking is now linked to 1 in 8 deaths for people under 25. Although young people generally drink on fewer occasions overall, they are consuming at higher risk levels each time, increasing their risk of long-term health problems and other alcohol-related harms.

We’re not the only country in the world with heavy drinking inherent in our national identity. Perhaps the problem lies in the normalisation of getting drunk in this country. We need to change the “Go on, have another one mate” mentality. We need a change in Australia’s drinking culture. Many are sceptical that this can be achieved, but it has been done before.

Forty years ago cigarette smoking was engrained in our culture, with around half the Australian population smoking. Advertisements and marketing were littered with images of fashionable young people enjoying life: cigarette in hand. With less than 16 per cent of Australians now smoking, nation-wide bans on smoking in many public places, education campaigns and the removal of media imagery glamorising their use, our smoking culture is a far cry from the 1970s.

Generational change is the key to a healthier future for Australia. Those who drink responsibly should still be able to enjoy alcohol, but we need to educate and inform the younger generations of the harms of alcohol misuse in order to encourage a cultural shift in our attitude to drinking.

Australia needs to know that a single-punch after a big night out can be fatal.

We also need more research and data behind these incidents. History shows that research and intervention can make an impact upon substance-related assaults.

Although attitudes are difficult to change, it is clear that the level of alcohol-related harm in Australia will continue to rise unless we accept that there is a problem with our drinking culture and work towards changing it. We did it with smoking, we can do it with alcohol – and we must.

Dr Jennifer Pilgrim is a Research Fellow in the Department of Forensic Medicine at Monash University.