Higher Alcohol Sales May Mean a Greater Risk of Assault
> 5/13/2008 12:53:06 PM

Alcohol has long been associated with the commission of violent acts, and research has shown that the victims of abuse are also likely to have been drinking. A new study from the University of Toronto indicates that the availability of alcohol within a given area may play a role in subsequent rates of violence. The results, published in Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine, illustrate that violent assault is more likely in areas where stores have high rates of alcohol sales.

The researchers set their study in Ontario, the largest Canadian province, where they were able to access both detailed medical and law enforcement records and government data on the sale of alcohol. They collected information on patients over the age of 13 who had been assaulted and hospitalized between April of 2002 and December of 2004. 3,212 victims of assault were hospitalized during this time, and further analysis indicated common characteristics associated with assault. Nearly a quarter of the victims were between the ages of 13 and 20 and 83 percent were male. The most common cause of hospitalization was an unarmed brawl or fight, which accounted for 47 percent of cases.

To examine the association between alcohol and violence, the researchers analyzed alcohol sales at retail outlets closest to each patient's home. Specifically, they looked at the amount of alcohol sold on the day prior to each hospitalization and compared that number to the number of sales made at the same store seven days earlier. The average store sold 971 liters of alcohol per day, and the researchers found that for every additional 1,000 liters sold, the chances that an assault would occur nearby rose by 13 percent. This rate increased in accordance with high-risk characteristics, with males having an 18 percent greater risk, people living in urban areas a 19 percent greater risk, and teens a 21 percent greater risk.

While the study raises important points about the relationship between alcohol and violence, its implications are restricted by several limitations. In a separate article also appearing in PLoS Medicine, Russell Bennetts and Rachel Seabrook of the Institute of Alcohol Studies in London discuss the many questions left unanswered by the study. Most notably, the researchers did not determine whether or not the victims or their abusers had been drinking, or even if they had purchased any alcohol prior to the assault. Still, Bennetts and Seabrook conclude that this lack of information does not weaken the study's general findings. And, as the study's authors point out, the results are most likely an underestimate of the true relationship between alcohol and violence. While the study illustrates a link between violence and sales at stores that carry wine, beer, and liquor, it does not touch upon violence occurring in and around bars where the risk of assault is almost certainly greater. Additionally, the researchers looked only at assaults that resulted in a specific outcome: injury serious enough to require hospitalization. A significant number of violent assaults cause less severe injuries and go unreported. In a more troubling remark, the researchers note that many other victims of assault die before reaching a hospital.

When alcohol sales increase within an area, the risk of violent behavior may also increase, and the researchers stress the need for programs that will emphasize this connection. In some places, especially urban communities, decreasing the number of stores licensed to sell alcohol may help prevent violence. The researchers should continue their study of the relationship between drinking and assault in an effort to resolve some of the unanswered questions created by this study, and further examination may lead them to effective strategies for reducing alcohol-related violence.

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