Melbourne’s CBD has become increasing violent late at night. In 2009–10, 2568 assaults were reported to police. This was a 3.7% increase on the 2008 figures and a 35% increase on assaults in 2005.
In 2007–08, 10% of all public place assaults occurred in licensed premises. More than 25% were flagged as involving alcohol. Ambulance attendances for alcohol intoxication increased by 258% in metropolitan Melbourne between 2000–01 and 2010–11.
These statistics support the impression that going out at night anywhere in inner-city Melbourne is a risky proposition. But assaults in licensed venues are highly concentrated in specific licensed venues.
Some venues are more dangerous than others
A study conducted in inner Sydney found that half of all assaults in hotels occurred in just 10% of venues – and 3% of venues accounted for 25% of assaults. A similar pattern of the concentration of harm in risky venues occurs in other cities around the world like Cincinnati where analysis has been undertaken.
To answer the question “why are some venues more violent than others?”, we conducted an observational study of 45 venues in Melbourne’s CBD.
Our exploratory study involved the collection of two data sets. First, 18 experts in the Melbourne night-time economy were surveyed and asked to rate the risk of aggression in 45 specific venues. These experts, who included security guards, entertainers, managers and bar staff, exhibited considerable consensus in their risk ratings of venues.
A research team member then visited these venues late on Thursday, Friday or Saturday nights. While having a drink, they made a quick rating of the venue’s maintenance and atmosphere, patron behaviour and demographics, security levels, music and marketing.
These venue characteristics were compared to the expert ratings to see which were most closely associated with aggression.
The single most important predictor of perceived violence at the venue level was the prominence of alcohol promotions. Violence levels were consistently higher in venues where alcohol was promoted through measures such as excessively cheap drinks, extended happy hours, “buy two, get one free” discounts, discounted alcoholic energy drinks and so on.
Alcohol promotions are associated with elevated in-venue aggression because they encourage people to drink more alcohol more quickly. Other studies have replicated this finding.
However, in our research, we subjectively rated patron intoxication levels as well as alcohol promotions. Apparent intoxication was less strongly associated with aggression than alcohol promotions. This implies that either our measure of intoxication was problematic or that promotions are associated with violence at a level over and above the pharmacological effects of intoxication.
What do these findings mean?
It may be that promotions of alcoholic beverages, particularly combinations of alcohol and energy drinks, encourage patterns of risky drinking behaviour (drinking quickly, buying rounds) and produce mass patron intoxication (cheap drinks, drink specials). They may engender a group intoxication response over and above individual effects.
The physiological impacts of energy drinks may also mask the pharmacological and behavioural effects of alcohol. This allows for increased alcohol consumption.
While these findings result from a single, modestly resourced study, they are consistent with the findings of other research. These also suggest alcohol promotions increase the risk of alcohol-related harms associated with licensed premises.
These other studies used a variety of methodologies in different locations, and have come to similar conclusions. This should increase our confidence in the existence of a promotions–aggression link.
How to respond
Evidence suggests the “Newcastle Model” of modestly reduced opening hours has dramatically reduced the incidence of alcohol-related assaults.
Our study suggests regulators may also wish to consider strengthening responsible service of alcohol initiatives focused on alcohol promotion as a specific harm-minimisation measure.
Responsible service of alcohol regulations that restrict alcohol promotions that cause mass intoxication (like shots and permanently discounted drinks), particularly in combination with energy drinks, may further reduce aggression within individual venues in the night-time economy.
The full results of this study were published here.
This piece was co-authored by AJ McFadden, a former honours student at Southern Cross University.
Francis Markham is PhD Candidate, The Fenner School of Environment and Society at Australian National University.
Martin Young is Associate Professor, Centre for Gambling Education and Research at Southern Cross University.