Since 2000, over 90 people have died from one-punch attacks in Australia. The sucker punch assaults are deadly not for their singular strike to the head, but because of massive trauma caused when the victim, unable to brace themselves, hits the ground at full force.
One punch attacks overwhelmingly occur in the vicinity of licensed venues, during the late night or early morning. The victims and attackers rarely know each other and alcohol has usually been consumed by both parties.
In an attempt to curb these violent deaths state governments in New South Wales, Western Australia and the Northern Territory have passed one punch laws which entail mandatory jail terms for the perpetrators of fatal one-punch attack that occur under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The recent attacks in Queensland come as the state government pushes ahead with tough new liquor licensing laws aimed at reducing violent, alcohol related attacks.
Introducing these laws implies that the main cause of one-punch assaults is alcohol; the line of reasoning being that if we (as a government) reduce the availability of alcohol, we will reduce violent assaults. But if alcohol truly is to blame for these attacks, then why don’t they occur on a global scale?
Australians undoubtedly love their grog. 2010 stats have us sitting on the upper end of global alcohol consumption, with the average Australian consuming 12.2L of alcohol a year. That’s roughly 17 bottles of wine, a case and a half of VB stubbies or 3 large boxes of goon. We drink less than France and Russia, but more than the UK, Germany and the US.
So do countries with similar or higher rates of alcohol consumption per person experience the same kind of violent assaults that have become commonplace in Australia?
Anthropologist Dr Anne Fox says no – alcohol itself is not the cause of violent assaults. After 20 years of global research on different drinking cultures, Dr Fox published Understanding Behaviour in the Australian and New Zealand night-time economies , concluding that it is the broader culture of a nation that determines an individual’s behaviour while drinking.
For example; Dr Fox determined that Icelanders consume more alcohol than Australians. However their rates of violence are far lower. This is despite having a stronger culture of drinking before heading out (preloading), bars that are open 24hrs as well as higher gun ownership. The difference is that, unlike Australia, there isn’t a wider culture of violence in Iceland (seriously – the first time Icelandic police were forced to fatally shoot a man was in 2013).
Last year I traveled to Japan to visit my sister who is completing tertiary studies. One of the first things I noticed in the country was the availability of alcohol. You could get it in corner shops, and from vending machines on the street. Coming from Australia where you can only buy alcohol in designated stores or licensed venues this was a big deal for me. Alcohol in Australia is seen as the reason for violent assaults, therefore it is heavily restricted and taxed.
I mentioned this to my sister who informed me (like Iceland) Japan doesn’t have a culture of violence or the preconception that alcohol creates violence. This is despite a strong drinking culture (particularly among businessmen). Anyone who’s visited Japan will attest to the incredible civility and conscientiousness of the Japanese people. I can’t help but see a link between a nation having a general culture of respect, and a nation not having a culture of violence while drinking.
The more you think about it, the more it doesn’t make sense to blame alcohol for violent assaults, for one-punch deaths. As Dr Fox points out,
“Alcohol – as all of the scientific literature shows…cannot be considered a cause of violence. If it was, we’d see uniform levels of violence among all drinkers.”
“Anthropologists for decades now have been finding through international cross-cultural studies that the way you behave when you’re drunk is mostly the way that your culture teaches you to behave.”
I’m not exonerating alcohol completely. Alcohol addiction is a very real problem, and there are severe health impacts from its over-consumption.
But rather than blame alcohol for violent acts, these findings reinforce the importance of having a tolerant, respectful culture if we wish to curb violence. A culture that doesn’t find physical or verbal violence acceptable. A culture that doesn’t think violence is funny, or something to boast about. A culture that teaches respect for all members of society regardless of sex, race, sexual orientation or religion. Further restricting the availability of alcohol might temporarily fix the symptoms, but not the cause of violence in Australia.