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Alcohol and Violence - 
What's the connection?

"There is better evidence for a causal relationship between alcohol and violence than many we rely on in the social sciences."      
Dr Robert Nash Parker, University of California.

The association between alcohol and violence

There are complex but strong statistical relationships between alcohol consumption and crimes of violence in most western countries, including New Zealand. Researchers have explored these through a variety of disciplines and methodologies and conclude that alcohol consumption increases the risk of violence.

In Australia, homicide rates have gone up and suicide rates down in years with higher per capita alcohol consumption. Time series data for England and Wales has shown alcohol consumption as one determinant of a wide range of crime, and may affect the probability of detection for some crimes. In many young populations, the relation between binge drinking and death from violence, both accidental and intentional, is stronger than any other relation between drinking and death. In Britain increased risk of injury in assault has been linked with binge drinking of more than 8 units by under 25 year olds and above average weekly consumption for those older.

In Sweden homicide rates have correlated with levels of alcohol abuse as indicated by liver cirrhosis mortality figure. Police statistics have shown a faster increase for alcohol related violent assault than for other crime, and one which has paralleled relaxation of laws to allow greater availability of alcohol and more opportunities for drinking in public restaurants, etc.

In Scandinavia, comparisons over time and between countries of changes in alcohol availability have shown a 1 litre change in per capita alcohol consumption was associated with 2-10% change in violent criminality. Research indicates that policies reducing alcohol consumption, particularly by young males, can be more effective in reducing crimes of violence than strengthening penal measures.

In comparing statistics for alcohol consumption and for violent crime at the aggregate level, policy changes that increase enforcement should be noted. In New Zealand increases in reported crimes and convictions have been highest for rape and other sex crimes and for 'male assaults female', which reflects changes in policing practices and greater priority given to domestic violence.

The extensive body of research now available indicates that alcohol consumption is a link in a causal chain resulting in violence and, importantly, one which is amenable to policy intervention.


Factors in alcohol-related violence

Pharmacologically, alcohol is a depressant, reaching first the higher brain centres - inhibiting self-consciousness, anxieties, and capacity for good judgement. Further consumption affects the lower centres, affecting motor functions causing drunks to stumble and slur. With excessive consumption, alcohol poisoning depresses the respiratory centre at the base of the brain, and may cause death. The presence of food in the stomach slows the absorption of alcohol into the blood and brain.

Psychologically, alcohol is often described as 'disinhibiting'. This helps explain its popularity as a social lubricant as well its association with street disorder, crime and violence.

Models have been developed, based mainly on studies of men, to explain how alcohol shapes interactions that result in violence. The effect of alcohol on higher brain functions reduce the number of cues to understanding a situation which the intoxicated person is able to perceive. It also affects how the person reacts to actions of others that may appear unreasonable, while impairing usual coping mechanisms.

Feelings about power and control also help link intoxication and violent incidents. Research in the United States shows that men drink primarily to feel stronger and that alcohol increases thought of social and personal power.. This has been linked to impaired perceptions about situations which can, however, suddenly appear out of control. Those for whom personalised power is a concern drink more heavily and may react more violently.

Situational factors combine with moderate intoxication to trigger violent incidents, particularly those which arouse feelings of frustration , such as: perceived loss of control in personal relationships; crowded, poorly designed venues; or inept refusal of entry or service. Situational factors (the presence of guns or potential mugging victims) were also emphasised in a US study on juvenile crime which identified alcohol as the catalyst for opportunistic crime arising out of a group drinking situation.

How one behaves when intoxicated varies between cultures. In western society, alcohol is associated with 'time out' from some rules of normal social behaviour. "I was drunk at the time" has often provided an acceptable means of avoiding personal or legal responsibility. Societies may be getting the 'drunken comportment' they allow, since drunks are often protectively selective in their disregard of rules and social hierarchies.

In Queensland, in a culture not too different from New Zealand's, research has revealed that observing or participating in violence is enjoyed as part of a night out drinking by thrill-seeking young men. It reinforces feelings of masculinity, youthful protest and 'a sense of carnival'.

Socio-economic factors also play a role in the interaction between alcohol and violence in limiting disposable income and choice of venue (alcohol-only pub, rather than restaurant or dinner party) which makes the drinking of some groups more public in nature. A major British inquiry into drinking and street disorder showed that those involved were disproportionately early school leavers, unemployed or in low skilled jobs, drinking heavily in male groups. Violence arose for trivial reasons from macho attitudes as the young men hung around fast food outlets after pubs closed, whereas others could afford to go on to other late night venues. Intoxication and rowdy behaviour by the 'dangerous classes' has been analysed as a reassertion of masculine status in response to disempowerment resulting from class structures or colonisation.


Alcohol and violence in New Zealand

In New Zealand the association between alcohol and road fatalities, injuries, crime and domestic violence has led to the inclusion of a focus on alcohol in crime prevention and traffic strategies. Alcohol abuse and high social tolerance of drinking have been identified as risk factors in the yearly average 474 suicides, 71 homicides and 2,500 hospitalisations from intentional injury.

A 1995 national survey of alcohol consumption among 14 to 65 year olds showed that men aged 18-24 were most likely to report problems from their drinking, such as getting into a fight or having a serious argument after drinking.

Six percent of the men respondents and 2% of the women (equivalent to 63,000 men and 18,000 women nationally) reported getting into a physical fight after drinking in the previous 12 months.

Ten percent of the men and 5% of the women (equivalent to 115,000 men and 62,000 women nationally) reported being physically assaulted in the previous 12 months by someone who had been drinking. For 1% of both men and women this had happened five or more times.

A recent study of homicide in New Zealand showed those most at risk were males, especially aged 20-24, with higher rates for Maori than non Maori. Most occurred on Fridays or Saturdays between 6 pm and 6 am, with the most common location in homes, on the street and in licensed premises. Alcohol was identified as a factor, as well as availability of weapons, the private nature of homes, stress in personal relationships and unemployment.

The Christchurch Health and Development Study showed that young people who abuse alcohol had 3.2 times the odds of violent offending. The researchers argued that this goes beyond risk factors which may contribute to both drinking and violent behaviour and suggested a direct cause and effect association between adolescent alcohol misuse and increased risk of violent offending.


Alcohol and violence against women

The consumption of alcohol is associated with the physical abuse of women by men. The alcohol often contributes to the escalation of a verbal argument. The negative consequences for women from male drinking supports the continuation of a strong focus in research, policy, and enforcement on heavy drinking males.

In a 1988 national survey of alcohol consumption in New Zealand, 82% of women who reported being assaulted in the previous 12 months said the person had been drinking. As noted above, an estimated 62,000 women aged 14 to 65 were assaulted by a drinker in 1995.

In the 1995 survey of drinking in New Zealand 11% of the women (equivalent to 124,000 women nationally) reported being sexually harassed in the previous 12 months by someone who had been drinking.

Of people in the 16 to 24 age group, 12% of the women reported being physically assaulted in the previous 12 months. Over a quarter of the 16 to 24 year old women said they had been sexually harassed by drinkers, and for 10% this had happened five or more times in the previous 12 months.

Studies of family violence show high rates of alcohol involvement. In one US national survey the higher rates of wife battering were associated with alcohol consumption and blue collar status together with the strongest single risk factor, the batterer's belief that violence by men against women is socially condoned.

Comparisons between countries show that female homicide correlates primarily with the divorce rate, but is significantly higher in countries in which binge drinking is integrated into a culture in which drinking is 'normalised' as part of daily life.


Violence and licensed premises

Typically drinking larger amounts of alcohol in licensed hotels, taverns and sports clubs is a predictor for experiences of alcohol related problems, and these were the most popular location of drinking for males aged 18-24 in the 1995 national survey.

In Western Australia, drinking on licensed premises, especially hotels, taverns and nightclubs, precedes a disproportionate amount of alcohol-related violence. In Sydney police have documented the way drinking in licensed premises is associated with street offences, including violence and malicious damage, and also with domestic violence.

In Australia in the 1970s, lowering states' minimum legal drinking ages to allow the sale of alcohol to 18 year olds was associated, not only with increases in traffic crashes, but with a 20-30% increase in juvenile crime in Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and, on more limited data, Western Australia. There were also increased non-traffic related hospital admissions for 18-28 year old women in West Australia, and for 15-17 year old males in Queensland, with increased emergency admissions for 15-17 females deliberately injured by others and attempted suicides.

In the United States raising the minimum age of alcohol purchase to 21 in the mid 1980s had a positive impact on youth homicide (21-24 years).

In some New Zealand police districts, questions on charge sheets about last place of drinking now help identify licensed premises with less responsible management practices with regard to patrons becoming intoxicated.

Responsible host practices on licensed premises, being an important location of drinking by young men, can help reduce excessive alcohol consumption. These practices include slowing or limiting serving to avoid intoxication, promoting food and non-alcoholic drinks, and avoiding promotions which encourage rapid or excessive drinking. Situational factors which trigger violent behaviour can be reduced by improved layouts, staff training, limiting crowds and providing good entertainment for patrons.

Overseas experiences have shown that good server practices need to be reinforced by licensee's expectation that such requirements will be enforced. Consistent (and well publicised) enforcement of laws against serving intoxicated people on licensed premises and selling take-away liquor to underage people, and of disorderly behaviour near licensed premises can help reduce the incidence of violence.


Researcher: Linda Hill

The Alcohol & Public Health Research Unit would like to thank Prof. Ross Homel, Griffith University and Dr Rob Nash Parker, University of California, Riverside, for comments on this factsheet, and to acknowledge funding from the Health Research Council and the Alcohol Advisory Council.

See also the Injury Prevention Research Centre's website for research on Intentional Injury and factsheet on Violence in New Zealand.

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