• health

Study reveals social cost of abolishing early closing

John Kidman December 10, 2023

As the minute hand on the wall clock raced towards the hour, thirsty men rows deep jostled for final refills before skolling their beers and stumbling into the street, the doors bolting shut behind them.

Known as the six o’clock swill, it was a scenario that played out in pubs across Australia for much of the 20th century.

The hour-long drinking frenzy between the end of the working day and early closing ironically began as a response to a wartime austerity and public morality measure instituted in 1916 to curb intoxication.

Driven by the powerful temperance movement but decried by drinkers as draconian and the work of wowsers, the restricted availability of grog lasted 51 years in South Australia, half a century in Victoria, 39 years in NSW and 21 in Tasmania.

Western Australia opted for 9pm closing, while Queensland held out until 1923 before agreeing to shut off the taps at 8pm.

The nation finally heard the last of early closing in 1967, with South Australian premier Don Dunstan marking the occasion by raising a glass in celebration with the locals at Adelaide’s Challa Gardens Hotel a minute after 6pm on September 28.

Experts agree the practice and the binge-drinking epidemic it inspired are unlikely to make a comeback any time soon.

Yet with licensing rules again open to debate amid Australia’s escalating fight against domestic violence, researchers are only now beginning to grasp their significance.    

A study by La Trobe and Melbourne universities has for the first time measured the impact of closing Aussie pubs at 6pm upon alcohol-related harm.

While not proof that one thing causes another, the findings link early closing with lower alcohol consumption, less drunkenness, fewer deaths due to liver disease and diminished rates of fatal injury, namely suicide and homicide including where the victims are women.

“Harmful levels of consumption continue to produce a major increased risk of chronic disease and premature death by alcoholic liver cirrhosis, injury involving for example, domestic, sexual and other violence, as well as motor vehicle accidents,” the authors say.

In evidence, they cite a 2022 Australian Bureau of Statistics report showing 1559 alcohol-induced deaths (1156 males and 403 females).

According to the research, alcohol consumption per capita in Australia dropped from eight to six litres per year with the advent of early closing and then to less than four litres during the Great Depression.

As families acquired disposable income in the 1950s, they began stocking their own fridges and liquor cabinets rather than rely solely on the local boozer for a tipple.

By the time early closing was repealed, consumption had climbed to 10 litres per year and peaked in the 1970s at 13 litres before settling at 11 litres in the early 2000s.

Unsurprisingly, mortality rates for liver disease show a similar trajectory, declining with the advent of early closing, rising between the mid-1960s and 1980s and then plateauing.

Convictions for drunkenness, while presumably inflated by the arrest of patrons as they were turfed into the street by publicans having drunk their fill, generally decreased to begin with, rose sharply until the 1950s and have since returned to pre-WWI rates.

The researchers found suicide and homicide both decreased substantially or close to it “in association with early closing”.

“The reputation of early closing, built on collective memories of the community, has become entrenched, decades before it could be challenged with this evidence,” they conclude.

“The evidence presented here suggests that its reputation should be re-evaluated.

“While universal six o’clock closing is no longer feasible or desirable, opening hours and days are still part of the policy discussion and mix in various circumstances in Australia.”

Of note, requests to relax longstanding licensing controls in the NSW steel city of Newcastle are currently being considered pub-by-pub after a trial revocation led to a 40 per cent boost in spending on dining and entertainment.

Fourteen venues were slapped with closing restrictions and drink limits in 2008, amid concern about alcohol-fuelled violence.

The clampdown included 1am lockouts and bans on shots but 10 years on, authorities keen to revitalise nightlife allowed some venues to again trade until 3.30am and sell high-strength cocktails, shots and neat spirits.

The majority recorded no increases in assaults or affray on or around their premises yet Newcastle has experienced a general uptick in violence which has offset a major decrease in offences after the conditions were imposed in 2008.

An extension of late-night trade for NSW bottle shops was also linked last year to a spike in domestic assault.

The state’s Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research associated allowing takeaway sales and home deliveries until 11pm over a period of 38 months with an additional 1120 incidents of household violence.

Notably, the increase was more pronounced after 10pm.

“Many studies have shown longer trading hours for pubs and nightclubs increases alcohol consumption and related harms,” said the bureau’s director Jackie Fitzgerald at the time.

“However, few studies have examined violence associated with increased trading hours for packaged liquor outlets.”

Following the one-punch deaths of teenagers Thomas Kelly and Daniel Christie, controversial lockout laws were instituted in Sydney in 2014, but similarly wound back six years later.

The last of the restrictions were repealed in the city’s once notorious red light district of Kings Cross in March 2021, when an extra two hours drinking time, until 3.30am, was granted in the name of reviving a stagnated night-time economy.

Shots, cut-price cocktails and glass tumblers beyond midnight made a comeback and responsible service, security marshals and CCTV surveillance requirements were also relaxed.

Australian Medical Association NSW head Danielle McMullen lashed the decision as irresponsible, saying the lockout laws had successfully reduced alcohol-related harm.

However, proponents of the softer laws argue the Cross was gentrified to such an extent during the prohibitions it is never again likely to return to the notoriety of its bad old days.

Other initiatives including banned drinker registers, ID scanners at bottle shops and liquor inspectors have meanwhile failed to impact Australia’s highest rate of sexual assault, across the Northern Territory, according to research published in Drug and Alcohol Review. 

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