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
- 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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'.
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
Alcohol and violence in
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Violence and licensed
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
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
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
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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