The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons has slammed a proposed trial of relaxed licensing conditions in Newcastle and broader reforms to NSW liquor legislation, accusing the state government of bias towards the alcohol industry.
Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello last week flagged a trial this year of looser restrictions on Newcastle bars and restaurants.
Dr John Crozier, a vascular surgeon at Liverpool Hospital and chair of the RACS's National Trauma Committee, said it was the "very worst time to be experimenting with relaxations around alcohol sales".
"This is not a trivial matter, and nor is the community to be lightly experimented with via trial, which self-evidently favours the alcohol industry, gives disproportionate favour in a very opaque way to those that potentially profit the most, but fails to acknowledge the victims they might generate will need to be cared for and paid for out of the public purse," he said.
He said changes made to Newcastle's late-trading restrictions in 2008 had not discouraged small bars from opening.
"Why change now a model that self-evidently has proved of great benefit to the range of business operators in hospitality who have basically got with the program?
"Why now, in 2020, would you be proposing a trial, and why in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic, where we've already seen the dramatic escalation that can occur in 24 hours in Melbourne? Why would you risk that in Newcastle?"
Mr Dominello held a meeting with the Australian Hotels Association, Hunter Business Chamber, Independent Bars Association, Newcastle Tourism Industry Group and Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp last week before separate talks with police, Newcastle council and local anti-violence campaigner Tony Brown.
Dr Crozier said the alcohol industry had "disproportionate, top-table" access to governments, who ignored the nurses and agencies who cared for female and child victims of alcohol violence.
The government also plans to change the Liquor Act after a parliamentary review of Sydney's night trade last year.
In a formal submission on the draft Liquor Amendment (24-hour Economy) Bill, the RACS NSW committee says the proposed amendments could increase the number of patients and severity of injuries caused by "preventable alcohol-related harm".
The college says the urgent prevention of alcohol-related harm should be the main driver of changes to the Liquor Act and "not the creation of a 24 hour economy in Sydney's CBD and Kings Cross".
"A major concern of RACS is the Government's apparent preoccupation of creating a regulatory environment that is conducive to the alcohol industry's increased profitability and growth, whilst avoiding the negative public safety and health consequences of increasing the availability and supply of alcohol," the submission says.
The RACS takes aim at proposals to allow alcohol home deliveries up to midnight, arguing they should be capped at 10pm and include a minimum two-hour delay from time of order.
It also calls for an immediate halt to deliveries until all deliverers complete a training course approved by Liquor & Gaming NSW.
Liquor & Gaming issued a discussion paper in October which said the number of packaged liquor licences in NSW had grown in the decade to 2018 from 1660 to 2578. The number of these businesses offering online sales had jumped from 44, or 2.65 per cent, in 2008 to 512, or 19.8 per cent, by 2018.
The draft bill includes removing the need for community impact statements for small bar licences, allowing children in small bars until midnight and "regularising" 2am trading for small bars.
It also proposes replacing the "three-strikes" policy for venues with a demerit-point scheme offering incentives for compliance.
Dr Crozier said the changes amounted to a dangerous watering down of legislation.
He rejected the political and industry narrative that Australia had developed a more "sophisticated" drinking culture which required less oversight.
He said a Liquor & Gaming summary of the draft bill relied on a single indicator, non-domestic alcohol-related assaults, as justification for the changes but ignored Department of Health evidence that alcohol harm was increasing throughout NSW.
The government's HealthStats website reports that hospital admissions due to alcohol rose from just over 300 per 100,000 people in 2002 to 700 per 100,000 people in 2018. In the Hunter New England Health district, the number of people admitted to hospital with an alcohol-related problem increased 56 per cent from 2002 to 2018.
Dr Crozier said the evidence ran counter to assertions by the alcohol industry that on average people were consuming less.
"The implied benefit of that statement by the industry is that there is less alcohol-related harm. That is not the fact," he said.
"We and others have been saddened to see that a range of measures outside of the terms of reference of that Sydney night-time economy [review] have occurred."
Dr Crozier said one little-known effect of alcohol was that it was a carcinogen "directly attributable" to 16 per cent of breast cancer.
He said a 2014 amendment to the Liquor Act which forced bottle shops to close at 10pm had led to "dramatic reductions" in domestic violence in regional and rural NSW and a 9 per cent statewide fall in other alcohol-related assaults.
The government shifted the closing time to 11pm after a 2016 review of liquor laws by Ian Callinan QC.
"Under the guise of the review of the Sydney night-time economy, the packaged liquor outlet restriction was then moved further to the right to midnight, whole of state," Dr Crozier said.
"Virtually every application for an online licence has been approved in the last 18 months, every one of them. It's a dramatic escalation in the licences available.
"It's a very opaque process which has allowed an easy win for the industry, but there haven't been the appropriate regulatory checks that the community could expect."
Venues in inner-city Newcastle and Hamilton are governed by 12-year-old late-night trading restrictions which include a 1.30am lockout and limits on when certain drinks can be sold.
Mr Crakanthorp and Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes came out strongly last week in favour of changing the restrictions.
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