A single, unprovoked punch to the head from a stranger was enough to kill teenager Thomas Kelly as he walked through Sydney’s most famous nightspot with his girlfriend. Almost two years on, authorities are fighting back.
His death sparked a public outcry against alcohol-fueled violence that intensified after another 18-year-old died last month from an attack in the same Kings Cross district. More than 90 people have now been killed in Australia since 2000 in one-punch assaults that researchers say are mostly tied to alcohol.
“The viciousness is increasing,” said Gordian Fulde, head of emergency medicine at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, which treated both teenage victims and a 23-year-old man with severe head injuries after a December beating near Bondi Beach. “All of it because of excess drinking. It’s totally unnecessary.”
Under a crackdown on binge drinking starting today, people will be banned from entering many bars and nightclubs in central Sydney after 1:30 a.m., while stores across New South Wales state won’t be allowed to sell takeaway beer, wine and liquor after 10 p.m. Average alcohol consumption in Australia, where liquor was once an unofficial currency, is 21 percent higher than in the U.S. and more than five times the figure in Singapore, according to the World Health Organization.
“It’s about restricting availability at high-risk times,” said Anthony Shakeshaft, professor at the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. “If you want to change that binge-drinking culture, tightening up on legislation is probably the way to do it.”
While research shows most of the lethal punches were thrown at bars or hotels, the random nature of the fatal assault on Kelly fueled concern Sydney’s streets were no longer safe. Not everyone approves of New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell’s clampdown, which includes a law introduced last month to increase jail terms for drunken killers.
The 1:30 a.m. lockout, followed by 3 a.m. last orders for customers already inside, penalizes businesses that in some cases were allowed to serve alcohol 24 hours a day, according to the Australian Hotels Association New South Wales. It represents 1,800 bars and other venues across the state.
The restrictions also risk flooding an area of the city stretching from Sydney Harbour Bridge to Kings Cross with thousands of drinkers at the same time, said John Green, a director at the Sydney-based lobby group.
“Rather than people filtering away as the night finishes, there are now two clearly defined conflict points,” said Green, a police officer for 25 years who once led the New South Wales force’s fight against alcohol-related crime. “We are very skeptical.”
The state government says night-time assaults dropped by more than a third after similar restrictions were introduced in 2008 in the city of Newcastle, a two-hour drive north of Sydney.
Australia’s drinking culture was forged when it became a British penal colony in 1788, said Milton Lewis, author of the 1992 book, “A Rum State: Alcohol and State Policy in Australia, 1788-1988.” Troops overseeing the early settlement became known as the Rum Corps because they stockpiled liquor imports and exchanged the alcohol for goods and labor.
Many convicts and lonely settlers turned to liquor for solace, while laborers in the outback would spend weeks of pay on a binge that could last days, he said.
“You came into town and the first grog shanty you hit, you drank it all away in a week or two, drinking to get drunk and stay drunk,” Lewis said. “It was a frontier society.”
Even now, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke is revered by some for his beer-drinking ability after setting a record for the fastest consumption of a yard -- more than a liter -- while studying at the University of Oxford. Last month, the 84-year-old downed a beer without pause in front of cheering fans at an international cricket match in Sydney.
Average alcohol consumption in Australia peaked in 1977, when drinkers got through the equivalent of 13.5 liters of pure alcohol a year, according to the World Health Organization. The average consumption was 10.4 liters in 2010, compared with 8.6 for the U.S., 2 for Singapore and 12.9 for Lithuania -- the most for any country according to data available for that year.
Most adults in Australia say their country has an alcohol problem, according to a 2013 poll by Canberra-based charity Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. About 4.5 million Australians -- almost 20 percent of the population -- drink to get drunk and most drinkers aged between 18 and 34 have the same aim, according to the poll.
It’s too late to save the younger generation, said Ralph Kelly, whose family set up the Thomas Kelly Youth Foundation to cut alcohol-related violence after his son’s death. His petition for tougher prison terms, after Thomas’s killer was jailed for a maximum of six years for manslaughter, drew more than 144,000 signatures. The prosecution appealed the sentence, calling it “manifestly inadequate.”
Under laws introduced last month, drink-related killings in New South Wales carry a minimum prison sentence of eight years and terms can stretch to 25 years.
“If the legal system isn’t in sync with what’s happening in the community, then we’ll never get that cultural change,” said Kelly. “It is a generational change to the attitude in drinking and the harms of drinking.”
Less than a kilometer from Kings Cross, Fulde, who has led the emergency team at St Vincent’s Hospital for 30 years, sees the worst of the fallout. The most serious injuries often occur when a person hits the ground after a head punch, he said.
“Sometimes we don’t know whether they’re going to die or have permanent brain damage or be in a vegetative state,” he said. “There’s every chance that for months they’ll have headaches, concentration failure, and relationship failure because they’ve just changed. It’s horrible.”
Ninety people, including four women, died in Australia between 2000 and 2012 after a single blow to the head, either because of the strike or the impact as they fell, according to a study of coronial data by the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
Kelly says anger and the memory of his son drive him to prevent more deaths.
“It’s grief,” he said. “You just live it every day. You lose a child and it’s something you never want to experience.”
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