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The Australian National University

Dealing with alcohol in Alice Springs: an assessment of policy options and recommendations for action

Working Paper 3 / 1999


The excessive consumption of alcohol and associated behaviour is a potentially intractable issue with no easy policy solutions. Altering drinking behaviour will inevitably involve changing attitudes over the long term and indeed will need generational change. Such change must come from the individuals who make up the ‘demand’ side of the drinking equation. However, change must also come from the ‘supply’ side of the equation, from those who sell and serve alcoholic beverages, since the availability of alcohol affects attitudes and behaviours at both the individual and community levels. Above all, change of the sort that could make a difference will require a degree of political will. It will take bipartisan political determination to bring about the changes that could contribute to a long-term improvement in the amounts, type and style of alcohol consumption that are now commonplace in Alice Springs (and in other parts of the Territory). We must face up to the fact that Alice Springs has an unusually high density of liquor outlets. According to Lyon (1990), in 1988 it had 40 per cent more licenses per head of population than the rest of the Northern Territory, itself high by Australian standards. While by 1998, the total number of licenses in Alice Springs per 100,000 population over the age of 15 years had dropped marginally, there is little doubt that the ready availability of alcohol can be linked to the high per capita consumption levels (see further discussion on p. 6).


Opposing views as to ‘solutions’

The first point to make is that disagreements and controversies over what needs to be done to address alcohol problems usually arise from quite different views as to what is the underlying nature of the grog problem, and as a result what action is needed to ‘solve’ the problem. It is most unlikely that these deeply held opinions in the Northern Territory and Alice Springs contexts could be reconciled in any simple fashion.

Thus, one approach is to adopt public health programs or other interventions targeting the whole community, which seek to reduce overall alcohol consumption. These can include, for example, education programs which aim to encourage responsible drinking practices across all sectors of the community, or changes in the availability of alcohol (for example, through restrictions on hours or numbers of outlets) which affect all consumers.

Such approaches often produce opposition from those who consider themselves ‘moderate’ drinkers, or ‘average’ members of the community, who may claim that they will have to pay for what they see as the sins of the few. This is despite the fact that the available aggregate consumption figures for all sectors of the Alice Springs community suggest that a long-term and broadly based public health strategy is required to reduce alcohol consumption levels. Furthermore, broad restrictions on alcohol availability can also alienate licensees who may lose significant income as a result of restrictions when, arguably, their cooperation (as a group) is required for long-term improvements to the situation.

The other widely held set of views focus on what is seen as the ‘problem drinker’. From this perspective, most of the alcohol-related problems in Alice Springs are seen as being associated with a relatively small group of people who habitually drink to excess and cause themselves and others harm. According to this view, interventions should be aimed at the identified problem drinkers, not at the community as a whole. This approach often allows for a focus on Aboriginal drinkers which can be seen as discriminatory or even racist, and leads to opposition from Aboriginal individuals and organisations. It tends to alienate those people in a position to coax cooperation from both the ‘grassroots’ and from umbrella organisations.

It is clear that the differences of opinion in Alice Springs about what to do about the problem of public drunkenness and other alcohol related problems is, in fact a struggle over which of the two above approaches is going to be the dominant one: the generalised approach on the one hand, or the targeted approach on the other. The struggle between proponents of these two views has merely succeeded in polarising the Alice Springs community, and making it extremely difficult to propose actions which are acceptable to all or even most stakeholders.

It is also difficult to persuade people who drink in a low-risk manner that they should drink less, or have less easy access to alcohol, but most people seem willing to support sensible strategies that are focused on reducing alcohol-related harm, or on deterring behaviour which renders such harm likely (Stockwell et al. 1997). Furthermore, all the research supports the finding that drinking large amounts of alcohol on particular occasions is a strong predictor of subsequent intoxication-related problems such as disputation, violence, and accidents. This suggests a focus on particular high-risk situations and practices may be the most useful but, before returning to this point, we wish to discuss some of the options raised with us.

Organisation of the report

This report aims to provide a broad overview of possible policy directions to address the particular alcohol problems in Alice Springs. It seeks to do this in the context of international and national best practice, while recognising the considerable steps in this area already undertaken at a number of levels, including community-based organisations. The report, therefore, is organised around a number of core themes which emerge in the literature on alcohol policy and, where appropriate examines these in the light of international best practice, relevant examples from the wider Australian situation, and circumstances in the Northern Territory and Alice Springs in partic