What contributes to alcohol-related violence and how can we prevent it?

Commonly seen and heard navigating down the corridor of an entertainment district are staggering patrons and their escalating aggression levels. When witnessed, incidents of alcohol-fueled violence may seem insignificant numerically; however, over the course of time the offences amount to substantial trauma and related legal costs. For example, a Canadian inmate study estimated that 28% of violent crimes reported to police are alcohol-associated1. In British Columbia, this translates to 17,888 offences in 2012 and a startling figure of 211,683 police-reported incidents over the ten years previous2. To see a striking visual illustration, visit the Victoria Police crime mapping portal and observe the concentration of assaults around the downtown entertainment district.

Behind these statistics, the alcohol-violence connection is complex and shaped by multiple factors: individual personalities, drinking environments, and social norms each having variable effects on human behaviour and drinking cultures. At the individual level it is hard to deny alcohol’s ability to impair judgement. Arguably this is the euphoric feeling (and the associated loss of fear or “Dutch Courage”) consumers seek.  The same decrease in cognitive function also leads to increased risk of physical violence and victimization when intoxicated patrons interact (i.e., around bars, nightclubs, or liquor outlets). In fact, a research article considering 11, 563 injury cases from 45 different hospitals across 16 different countries found that intoxicated patients had a higher likelihood of violence-related injury than any other catalyst. Many studies have also linked decreases in the price of alcohol, increases in trading hours, and high alcohol outlet densities (on and off premise alcohol retailers per unit area or roadway) to greater rates of homicides, assaults, and domestic violence independent of demographic and socio-economic status3&4. The only positive note is the consistently insignificant effect of restaurant liquor licenses on violence rates inferring that drinking with a meal and a small social group is mostly low risk.

Preventative measures to reduce the burden of alcohol-related violence are not out of reach for British Columbians. In fact, we have already come a long way in accepting evidence- based limits on pressing matters such as driving rights and public intoxication. Should we not consider the expediency of introducing fair pricing of higher alcohol content products, limiting late night sales of alcohol, and restricting alcohol outlet densities since these have been shown to reduce alcohol-related violence5&6? Allowing alcohol prices to keep pace with inflation6, shortening the 9:00am to 4:00am hours of on-premise liquor sales, and creating population based restrictions on liquor establishment densities removing the pressure on municipal governments to assess and approve liquor licenses7 seem reasonable steps toward harm reduction.

Armed with this knowledge, what alcohol availability restrictions are we willing to accept in order to decrease related harms?


Author: Jessica Fitterer 

Harm to others: Is alcohol just a private matter?

While we know that there are individual risks associated with consuming alcohol, such as acute injuries or chronic diseases such as liver cirrhosis, how often do we think about the impact that our own alcohol use has on those around us? Alcohol use has many potential negative secondhand effects including stress to relationships, impacts on other’s health and safety (e.g. on the roads, in the streets late at night, in the workplace), violence and property crime, developmental problems in children and substantial economic costs.  For example, in 2012 alone there were 17,888 alcohol-related violent crimes committed in BC.

Looking at the overall impact of all these second-hand effects of alcohol has been an important focus of research in recent years. When smoking was linked with cancer and people became aware of the effects of second hand smoke, we began to see major developments in tobacco policy designed to protect those affected by other people’s smoking. The same is true of changes to drinking and driving policies and to some degree initiatives to prevent Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)—when innocent people are harmed it gets people’s attention and this can pave the way for change.

While there is limited data on this specific to Canada, three Canadian studies conducted between 2004 and 2008 found that nearly one in three adults reported experiencing one or more types of harm resulting from someone else’s drinking in the past 12 months. In contrast, according to the Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey results for 2010, of those who drank alcohol in the past year fewer than one in ten reported experiencing any harm to self, showing that individuals are much more likely to be affected my others drinking than their own drinking.

Do we need to use a wider-lens when we think about the impact of alcohol use? Would social norms around alcohol use change significantly if we started taking harms to others more seriously? Many individuals are ‘responsible’ drinkers, but others are often not. Moreover, our level of responsibility declines as our level of consumption increases. Liquor laws help protect everyone, drinkers and non-drinkers and we need to carefully consider how access to cheap alcohol affects drinkers and non-drinkers alike.

Now probably the most important question is what can we do about harm to others? There are many specific measures to reduce these harms that can be applied in different contexts e.g. policing late-night drinking venuesdeterring impaired driving and also more general measures which target hazardous drinking in the whole population. CARBC research shows that while BC leads in some areas of alcohol policy it also lags well behind in others and, overall is only achieving half its potential for alcohol harm reduction – both for drinkers and those around them.

How important is it that we implement evidence-based policies that can reduce harm for everyone?


Authors: Kate Vallance (pictured), Kara Thompson, Ashley Wettlaufer