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How many lives is a nightclub worth?

At this year’s Australia Day ceremony, Dr Gordian Fulde was celebrated as Senior Australian of the Year.

If you’ve heard of him previously, you might know Dr Fulde is director of Emergency Services at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, or seen him on TV explaining the burden on hospital services imposed by people who drink too much.

He’s a virtual fixture in various media, pointing to the agonised parade of men and women who are rushed to the hospital for emergency treatment due to alcohol consumption. Some have overdosed on alcohol, some have been beaten up, some have been sexually assaulted, some have organ damage or broken bones, some are brain-damaged and will never recover. Some cannot be saved.

Last week NSW Premier Baird defended his government’s licensing reforms, which aimed to save some people from themselves and others, and relieve the pressure on Fulde’s staff. Sick of the senseless alcohol toll and fed up with pointless deaths, the public had demanded action. The government looked into the Newcastle model: venues stop serving alcohol at 3.30am instead of 5am, with the result that assaults declined by 37%.  Rather than killing the nightlife, as venue managers had predicted, more licensed venues have opened in the Newcastle CBD.

Since 2014 Sydney has had a similar system within the entertainment districts. A ‘lockout’, or one-way door, operates at 1.30am, no shots are served after midnight, last drinks are served at 3am, and take-away sales end at 10pm. The Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research has reported assaults have fallen by 45% in Kings Cross and by 20% in the Sydney CBD.

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Fulde compared the nature of admissions to the Emergency Room at St Vincent’s for 12 months preceding the 2014 licensing reforms and for the subsequent 12 months. Prior to the reform 4.9% of serious injury cases in Emergency (n=318) were alcohol related compared to 3.7% (n=246) after the reform. That represents 72 fewer bodies in the emergency room as well as being a statistically significant reduction.

Yet the liquor industry still fights the reforms. It claims earlier closing times and lockout laws are failures because two ‘one-punch’ assaults that resulted in deaths in Kings Cross occurred before midnight. Such selective use of evidence only demonstrates the industry is considering its own interest and not the whole picture. Is a business model that inevitably leads to a pile of smashed and broken bodies at Fulde’s unit every Friday and Saturday night the right one?

Despite hysteria from venue managers and some patrons in Sydney, it’s worth remembering that alcohol isn’t prohibited, people are still free to drink until 3am in licensed venues, and even in New York, the city that never sleeps, is not a 24 hour alcohol city.

Have your say

The NSW government is in the process of reviewing Sydney’s current drinking laws, and they’re inviting feedback. Have your say on the 1:30am lock-out, 3am last drinks and 10pm takeaway liquor restrictions by emailing liquorlawreview@justice.nsw.gov.au.

The Queensland Government is currently discussing the introduction of similar conditions and we trust it will listen to the evidence rather than those invested in commerce over community safety.