Locked out by the Nanny State? The public health case for Sydney’s lockout laws

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This blog post incorporates a post previously published by Caterina Giorgi on DrinkTank. We’re grateful to Caterina for giving us permission to republish her post.

Sydney’s lockout laws have had a polarizing effect. One view is that they’ve killed off Sydney’s once-thriving nightlife, compromised the incomes of those in the hospitality industry, and simply redistributed alcohol-fuelled violence to other parts of Sydney.

Supporters of the laws – including NSW Premier Mike Baird, the families of assault victims, and St Vincent’s Hospital – cite statistics showing a significant drop in alcohol-related violence in affected areas and no increase in violence in other suburbs.

As a public health lawyer, to me these laws illustrate several themes that often arise in debates about the need for government intervention in public health matters.

  • Public health is only one “social good” among many. Sometimes we need to balance public health objectives against other social and economic goals, such as a vibrant nightlife – although that would be a hard argument to make to the parents of young men who’ve been killed by alcohol-related violence.
  • The introduction of public health legislation can have negative consequences, particularly on groups with a vested interest in the product or practice being regulated, including the hospitality industry.
  • However, these negative consequences can be mitigated, as when Australian government organisations replaced tobacco industry sponsorship of sports clubs with public funding, to ensure that clubs weren’t out of pocket when industry sponsorship was removed.
  • Finally, public health laws become normalized over time. Remember coming home from a club reeking of smoke? What seems like an invasion of individual freedom now often turns into a valuable health protection measure as social norms evolve over time.

Are the lock out laws an example of the Nanny State at its worst, or a proportionate measure designed to protect the public from the harmful, reckless actions of others? I’ll leave that for you to decide. Below we republish (with kind permission) a recent blogpost by Caterina Giorgi at the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) on the public health case for the lockout laws.

 Sydney is not dead. Sydney is not closed

 By Caterina Giorgi

Over the past few months, a small but vocal minority of people in Sydney have called for the Premier to wind back trading measures introduced to reduce alcohol-related violence. They present a narrow, exaggerated argument that Sydney is now ‘closed’ and that Sydney’s reputation as a global city is in shambles.

Some background.

Two years ago the New South Wales Government introduced laws that meant people cannot purchase alcohol from bottle shops after 10pm, and from bars and clubs in Sydney CBD and Kings Cross after 3am. They also introduced a one-way door policy (more commonly referred to as a ‘lockout’), which meant that people cannot move between venues in this precinct after 1.30am. These measures were introduced to keep people safe and stop the violence and deaths that were occurring as a result of alcohol use. Today a vast majority of people in New South Wales (68 per cent) support these measures.

Two years on and these measures are working. Alcohol-related assaults in Sydney have declined by 20.3 per cent and Kings Cross has seen a significant 45.1 per cent decline, there has been no displacement to other areas and businesses continue to grow, with liquor licence numbers continuing to increase across Sydney.

Those opposed to these successful measures allege the measures were a response to “hysteria” and a “knee-jerk reaction following the deaths of some young men”.

Let’s put to one side the seeming disregard and disrespect for those who lost their lives.

And ignore for the time being the hysteria and hyperbole inherent in the ridiculous claims that Sydney is ‘closed’ or the even more insensitive suggestion that the city is ‘dead’, complete with flower adorned casket.

But the suggestion that the introduction of modest trading hour measures was a knee-jerk reaction is completely false and conveniently ignores the evidence.

These measures are as far from a knee-jerk reaction as a policy can be. Reducing the availability of alcohol as a measure to reduce harms was raised with the State Government in 2003 at the New South Wales Alcohol Summit, 11 years before the measures were introduced.

These measures were advocated for after their introduction in Newcastle in 2008, six years before the legislation was implemented in Sydney.

And finally, they were again advocated for when a young man, Thomas Kelly, was killed 18 months before the measures were finally introduced in February 2014.

These measures have been advocated for because international and national research shows that they reduce violence.

In fact, when Yvette D’Ath, Attorney-General of Queensland, spoke about the introduction of similar measures in Queensland in Parliament just last week she said she has never seen so much independent evidence on a bill.

On Sunday thousands of people marched against the earlier closing times and lockouts in Sydney. Part of me thinks that it’s great that people decided to take time out of their lives to march for something that they believe in. But I can’t help wonder: what it is that these people have lost in their lives that they felt driven to protest?

Were they comparing themselves to people who have marched and protested over the weekend for Medicare, refugees or gender equality?

Do they genuinely think that alcohol is needed around the clock for their lives to be whole and fulfilled? And more importantly, if yes, what does this mean more generally about Australia as a society?

Sydney is not dead.

Sydney is not closed.

Sydney responded to significant levels of violence and deaths by introducing evidence-based measures that had been advocated for by experts, doctors, police and community members for many years. Instead of protesting against these measures, we should be congratulating members of government for doing what policy makers should do, fixing a significant social problem by introducing evidence-based solutions.

Premier O’Farrell and Premier Baird should be congratulated for doing what many politicians are afraid to do, introducing and maintaining measures that benefit the community ahead of significant vested interests. For that I congratulate them and I sincerely hope that the New South Wales Government continues to prioritise evidence ahead of hysteria.