In the central desert town of Alice Springs, rates of alcohol related violence have been among the highest in the world, but a new study has found a raft of policies introduced by the NT Government in 2018 are making a "marked" difference.
Research led by Dr Paul Secombe from the Intensive Care Unit at Alice Springs Hospital, examines the effect of controversial alcohol reforms that included a minimum unit price for alcohol, the introduction of Police Auxiliary Liquor Inspection Officers manning bottle shops and a Banned Drinkers Register.
The reforms, one of the most comprehensive sweep of changes to liquor laws in NT history, followed the release of the Riley review into alcohol policies.
"While several alcohol harm minimisation policies have been implemented in recent years, the effect of these on intensive care unit (ICU) admissions suggests the effectiveness of the Northern Territory's integrated alcohol harm reduction framework," Dr Secombe said.
The study - The effect of alcohol policy on intensive care unit admission patterns in Central Australia: A before-after cross-sectional study, has been published in the journal Anaestesia and Intensive Care, and examined a 10-bed ICU unit in Alice Springs with approximately 600 admissions a year.
It is the only critical care facility for 1500km in any direction, Dr Secombe said, serving about 50,000 people of which two-thirds of the patients identify as Indigenous.
The study found that alcohol related admissions to the ICU have reduced 38 per cent since the reforms came into effect.
"Given the well-established causal link between alcohol misuse and trauma it was unsurprising that the rate of ICU admissions with a diagnosis of trauma reduced following the introduction of stricter alcohol regulations," the researchers report.
"Given that the NT has the highest rates of alcohol-related road accidents and the highest rate of death and hospital presentations secondary to injuries from alcohol in Australia, our finding that the implementation of alcohol harm minimisation policies was associated with a reduction in ICU trauma admissions is an important one."
The stark findings have since triggered significant discussion within medical circles - including the publication of an editorial titled The swinging pendulum of alcohol policy in the Northern Territory.
Published in the journal Anaestesia and Intensive Care by Curtin University professor Tanya Chikritzhs and University of Western Australia professor Tarun Weeramanthri, the article highlights the raft of policies aimed at reducing alcohol availability in the NT "can be relied on to save lives, save hospital beds and save dollars".
"Central Australia is a good testing ground for alcohol policy effects, as alcohol-related harms are very high, and in the midst of a pandemic which has demonstrated its potential to wreak havoc on frontline healthcare services, the focus of the study... on alcohol-related intensive care unit (ICU) admissions to Alice Springs Hospital is timely," the authors say.
"That alcohol's toll on human life and society at large can be ameliorated by policy is good news in unsettling times."
They say the study reflects decades of scientific evidence supporting the crucial role alcohol availability plays in "driving problematic alcohol consumption".
"Australian governments and their agencies are relatively well informed of the evidence concerning the range of supply, harm and demand reduction strategies at their disposal to address alcohol-related problems and their enormous human and economic costs," they say.
"Alcohol pricing together with government controls on physical alcohol availability are recognised evidence-based components of a comprehensive approach to minimising harms from alcohol."
Professor Chikritzhs is part of the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University, while professor Weeramanthri is part of the School of Population and Global Health, University of Western Australia.
Commenting on the Northern Territory's "long-standing reputation for enduring the highest rates of alcohol-related harm in the country, and possibly the world", the authors say "urgent ameliorative and restorative action at all levels of government" is needed.
"Commercial pressures are already undermining progress, reducing transparency and pushing back the pendulum in favour of greater access," they say.
"Studies, such as the one by Wright and colleagues, confirm that if left unchecked, the cost of such pushback will be measurable in health and lives."
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