The alcohol-domestic violence myth

Putting more liquor outlets in a municipality does not, in fact, lead to a higher incidence of domestic violence.

The City of Casey in outer suburban Melbourne is concerned because, despite having high levels of domestic violence, the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation has approved construction of a Dan Murphy’s packaged liquor outlet in the municipality.

According toThe Age the proposal to establish the bottle shop in a “family violence hot spot” has sparked calls for an overhaul of liquor licensing approvals.

The newspaper says the City of Casey experienced the highest number of family violence incidents of any council in Victoria in the 12 months to September 2015. With 70 bottle shops it also has the highest number of packaged liquor outlets in the state.

It’s well established there’s a relationship between alcohol consumption and family violence, but is there a causal relationship between the number of bottle shops and domestic violence?
At first glance, the answer might seem to be yes. After all, as The Agereports, Casey has both the largest number of packaged liquor outlets and the highest level of domestic violence in the state.
But hang on; with around 283,000 residents, the City of Casey is by far the largest municipality in Victoria. So it’s not that surprising it has the most bottle shops and the most family violence incidents.

When differences in population are taken into account, Casey ranks 27th in the number of bottle shops per capita of all 31 Melbourne municipalities.

And it ranks eighth in Melbourne (the numbers are in the graphic at the bottom of The Age’s article, but you have to look for them) for domestic violence.
In fact, six of the seven Melbourne municipalities with higher per capita rates of family violence than Casey also have fewer bottle shops per capita.

On the basis of the numbers provided by The Age, it doesn’t look like there’s much of an association between bottle shops and family violence.

The Age only shows the rank order of municipalities. So I also looked at the Victoria Police statistics for the rate of domestic incidents; these are based on 2011-12 data but that won’t change the broad points I want to make.

They show Casey recorded 12.0 domestic violence incidents per 1000 population. With 23.9 incidents per 1000 population, the regional City of Latrobe had the highest rate in the state.  In fact, the seven highest rates were recorded in country municipalities. This is consistent with a story in The Age early last month.

The key thing these statistics show, though, is that there is no correlationbetween the rate of domestic violence and the density of bottleshops in Melbourne’s municipalities.

I don’t find that surprising. As the Royal Commission into Family Violence points out, alcohol use is associated with a relatively small proportion of domestic violence incidents (but they tend to be more severe and chronic).

Also, this is packaged alcohol; whether there are 60 or 70 bottle shops might affect travel time a bit, but it isn’t going to change consumption all that much. That’s probably especially so in the case of those who get repeatedly violent with their families when drinking.
Short of something approaching prohibition, putting a cap on the total number of packaged liquor outlets seems more likely to inconvenience the great majority of men and women in Casey who drink responsibly than it is to measurably reduce domestic violence.

My analysis might be “quick and dirty”, but it suggests policymakers should actually make sure they’ve got reliable evidence that it works before they resort to imposing caps on packaged liquor outlets.

Importantly, focusing attention on what might be of limited relevance or even possibly a dead end takes attention away from developing the sorts of policies that might really ameliorate the association between domestic violence and alcohol consumption.

Policymakers might instead note that outer-growth area municipalities in Melbourne have higher rates of domestic violence than middle and inner municipalities. It’s likely the characteristics of those populations provide a better explanation than bottle shop density.

For example, outer suburbs have high proportions of young families, households on low incomes, high levels of housing stress and disadvantaged households.

It’s worth noting too that although the Royal Commission into Family Violence specifically discusses regulation of alcohol supply, its recommendation relating to this aspect (one of 211 recommendations) is hardly forceful:

“The Victorian Government ensure that the terms of reference of the current review of the Liquor Control Reform Act 1998 (Vic) consider family violence and alcohol-related harms. The review should involve consultation with people who have expertise in the inter-relationship between family violence and alcohol use.”

It pays to look closely at proposals to address social problems indirectly. They can give the appearance of action but too often achieve little or nothing and avoid tackling the underlying cause.

*This article was originally published at Crikey blog The Urbanist. Click here to read more from Alan Davies and to comment